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Investigators Work to Trace Runway Error

Times Staff Writer

In the moments before the crash of Comair Flight 5191, the pilots and the lone air traffic controller on duty discussed using only one runway -- the one with the generous, 7,000-foot stretch that would have allowed for a safe takeoff.

That fact, culled from cockpit and control tower recordings and revealed Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board, has only deepened the mystery surrounding the crash: What was the source of the confusion that sent the plane on a fatal course down a shorter runway it was never meant to be on?

On Monday, dozens of investigators descended on Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport and the gruesome field of debris nearby, gathering clues that could eventually answer that question. As they worked through bouts of driving rain, other investigators in Washington began analyzing 32 minutes of cockpit voice recordings and information stored in the flight’s data recorder recovered from the crash, which killed 49 of the 50 people on board.

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, announced Monday that it would restore a second air traffic controller to the midnight-to-8 a.m. weekend shift in an apparent attempt to ease concern over having only one controller in the tower during the crash.

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The tower had had two controllers on this shift until four or five months ago, when traffic “dropped significantly” during those times, said Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman.

“Several hours often go by and no planes go in and out of the airport,” Bergen said.

An official cause of the crash is unlikely to come anytime soon from federal officials. “We don’t perform an analysis while we’re on scene,” NTSB member Debbie Hersman said. “We’re here to gather facts.”

In a late evening news conference, Hersman gave more details of the moments before the crash:

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* As the plane was headed toward takeoff, the crew remarked that it was odd that there were no runway lights.

* A witness who worked at the airport saw the plane take off in the dark from the shorter, unlighted runway, which is only used in the daytime by small general aviation aircraft. The main runway, meanwhile, was lighted.

* The plane’s weight, including passengers and freight, was just over 49,000 pounds. At that weight, the manufacturer estimated that the pilot would need 3,539 feet to begin the process of taking off. The runway is 3,500 feet long.

* Just beyond the runway, investigators found three tire marks in the grass that corresponded with the tires under the nose and the wings. After leaving the runway, the plane hit an earthen berm, then crashed through a fence and into a stand of trees.

* The first officer, 44-year-old James Polehinke -- the only survivor -- was flying the plane. He remained in critical condition Monday at University of Kentucky Hospital, a spokesman said.

Confusion over runway assignments occurs occasionally at airports, sometimes with disastrous results. But some pilots and air experts were amazed that this kind of mix-up could have occurred at Blue Grass, which has just two runways to handle the modest air traffic in Kentucky’s second-largest city.

“I just can’t imagine this situation in Lexington, because nobody’s in any kind of hurry -- there’s nothing going on,” said John Greaves, a Southern California lawyer and former pilot who flew into Lexington for Comair in the 1980s.

The 6 a.m. flight took off on what had been a typical Sunday morning for the airport: Only two other flights had taken off since 5 a.m.

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The pilots that morning would confront some minor changes to the airport’s runway and taxiing area. To comply with FAA regulations, the airport had repaved the 7,000-foot runway the weekend before, closing it for 48 hours.

When the airport reopened Aug. 20, all of the necessary lights and markers used to navigate the runway area were in place, said Brian Ellestad, an airport spokesman. The one exception was some center-line lights that had not yet been installed on the main runway, he said.

Also, the route to the runway had been altered, forcing planes approaching from the terminal to take a new left turn to line up for takeoff there.

“But everything is marked,” Ellestad said of the new configuration. “Everything’s been approved by the FAA.”

It is unclear whether first officer Polehinke and the official pilot, 35-year-old Jeffrey Clay, had flown other planes out of Lexington since the construction work. Nor is it clear how much overall experience they had with the airport. Officials for Comair refused to comment on this and other matters, citing the ongoing investigation. So did officials at Delta, Comair’s parent company.

Hersman said investigators would look at the paving project and any subsequent changes to the airport layout. But it is only one of a number of issues the group plans to examine.

On Monday, investigators rolled a plane of similar make onto the runway to see what the pilots could see.

The engines have already been examined -- they had been operating fine at the time of the crash, Hersman said.

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Investigators will study the actions of the air traffic controller to ensure guidelines were followed. Bergen, the FAA spokeswoman, would not comment on the controller’s performance. But John Cox -- a former airline pilot who runs the Washington, D.C.-based air safety consulting firm Safety Operating Systems -- raised a point that may emerge as crucial in the inquiry: Air traffic controllers, he said, are not required to visually check on a plane’s status after it has been cleared to take off at a given runway. (Bergen, citing the investigation, would not address whether this was indeed FAA policy.)

As part of the standard procedure in a plane crash investigation, officials will also look extensively into the background of the plane’s crew and their routine in the 72 hours before the flight. They will determine if they had enough rest, and run tests for alcohol and drug use.

When Polehinke pulled the 50-seat aircraft onto the shortened runway, some observers say he should have known immediately that something was wrong. Besides the lack of lighting, the long runway is 150 feet wide, while the one he was on was half that width.

Cox and Greaves, the former pilots, said Polehinke’s onboard compass would have told him he was on the wrong runway. The long runway is referred to as “22,” for 220 degrees; while the short one is called “26,” for 260 degrees. Such nomenclature is standard in airports, giving pilots the ability to double-check their position.

He should also have noticed some visual clues, Greaves said.

“When you’re lining up on 22, you don’t have to look but 30 degrees to your left to see the terminal and the ground environs of the airport,” he said. “If he’s pulling out on 26, he’s not going to see any of that. And you know, that should have tipped him off.”

In 1993, another airline pilot was confused by the airport’s runway layout, and accidentally lined up on the short runway, according to a document filed with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Aviation Safety Response system, and first reported on the aviation website FlightAware.

An air traffic controller noticed the problem and set him on the right course, according to the document.

Clay began working for Comair in November 1999 and became a pilot in 2004. He is survived by a wife and two daughters. His high school wrestling coach, Dennis Miller -- who stayed in touch with Clay -- described him as a responsible student who matured into a responsible adult.

“Jeff would never have done anything to endanger others, not knowingly. He just wouldn’t,” said Miller, 63, of Shelbyville, Del.

*

Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.


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