Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

NTSB Identification: DCA06MA064Scheduled 14 CFR Part 121: Air Carrier operation of COMAIR INC Accident occurred Sunday, August 27, 2006 in Lexington, KYAircraft: Bombardier, Inc. CRJ-200, registration: Injuries: 49 Fatal, 1 Serious.
This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.On August 27, 2006, about 6:07 AM eastern daylight time, Comair flight 5191, a Bombardier CRJ-200, N431CA, crashed upon takeoff from Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky. The ran off the end of Runway 26 and was destroyed by impact forces and post crash fire. The flight had been cleared to takeoff from Runway 22. Of the 47 passengers and 3 crewmembers onboard, 49 were fatally injured and one (the first officer) survived in critical condition. The flight was operating under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121 and was en route to Atlanta, Georgia. A full go-team investigation is underway. Source
Comair Crash: When Systems Fail
There Are Many Reasons Why Comair Flight 5191 Crashed
Aug. 28, 2006 — - How on earth could two qualified airline pilots take off from the wrong runway?
The question, of course, is the one being asked nationwide as the search for a cause in the tragic crash of Comair 5191 ramps up in Lexington, Ky. The answer, well, that will surprise you: There is no single cause in this or any airline accident.
Air accidents (like most accidents in complex human systems) are caused by a long series of problems, mistakes, missed opportunities, and other glitches that linked together like a chain, set up the potential for a tragedy long before someone came along and added the final link.
The Comair crash is no exception.
There are, in fact, many things that can contribute to a professional airline pilot starting down the wrong ribbon of concrete.
Whether confused by a forest of sometimes conflicting runway signs, hurried along by pressures of schedule and other aircraft, or victimized by your own assumptions of where you are in a complex airport, most experienced pilots have done something similar at least a few times in their careers, me included.
In fact, I can recall three instances in 13,000 hours of professional flying when my airplane ended up on the wrong runway. Fortunately, in each instance, we (or the tower) caught it in time.
When it's as dark at an airport as it was on Sunday morning when Comair 5191 left its gate, the visual clues and markings on taxiways become significantly more difficult to read.
Runways and landmarks that are so easily seen during the day may literally disappear at night, leaving the pilots with a combination of their own internal compass supplemented by taxiway lights and whatever lighted signs loom at them carrying the numbers of runways and taxiways alike.
And Sunday, there may have been an added problem created by the airport work crews changing the markings leading toward the main runway, though it's much too early to know if that was a factor.
But it gets more complex.
While pilots taxi their departing airplanes toward the runways they expect to use, they're also working their way through a lengthy series of preflight steps and checklists to make certain everything is properly set for takeoff.
In addition, the pilot may be giving the co-pilot a briefing on the departure plan (which way to turn, altitude to fly, etc), while fielding radio calls and listening to other aircraft on the field. And, as is often the case in an early morning departure at a smaller airport, a clearance to take off may be issued early by the control tower before the aircraft has reached the runway area.
If anything close to that sequence happened Sunday morning, one of the many questions for National Transportation Safety Board investigators will be whether providing the takeoff clearance early (which is perfectly legal) could have created a bit of additional pressure on the pilots to get off the ground.
The question has already been asked why the air traffic controller wasn't monitoring the flight after issuing the takeoff clearance, but the system has never required that, and controllers have many heads-down duties in the tower as well.
True, every year many sharp controllers catch human errors in progress in time to radio a quick warning (and there is a prestigious recognition called the Archie League Award for such heroics), but baby-sitting every pilot's level of compliance with every clearance just isn't possible.
And then there's the actual layout of the Lexington airport. When there's just one runway, or two runways crossing in the middle with the ends far apart, the opportunity to get mixed up is minimal. But when two different runways begin from nearly the same spot, the opportunity for confusion becomes possible.
That does not mean Lexington is somehow designed wrong or is unsafe, but it means there's an added potential for trouble.
At Lexington, the Comair crew was cleared to use the 7,000-foot runway that was long enough for a safe ground roll and liftoff. That's Runway 22 (add a zero and you have the magnetic compass heading, 220).
But the starting point for Runway 22 -- the one the plane was supposed to be on -- lies approximately 900 feet beyond the start point for Runway 26, which is half the length of 22.
In addition, there is a small jog to the left before reaching the end of Runway 26, just like there is before Runway 22, and even someone familiar with the airfield might be fooled.
Now, put these factors together and you begin to get a rough idea of why a simple mistake turns out to be so complex.
Add in a possible half-remembered reference to runway lights being out, and the opportunity to fixate on the first runway you come to as the correct one (even though unlighted) and it all becomes more explicable.
Then, too, there's the reality that you can't necessarily see the runway lights of the intersecting runway (the one they really wanted, Runway 22) from the end of 26, and thus the only thing that could have absolutely prevented a disastrous plunge down a too-short runway is a procedure the FAA has never mandated: A final crosscheck by the pilot and co-pilot before pushing up the power.
Pilots are human, and humans -- once we decide something is true -- tend to discount subtle clues to the contrary.
There is little doubt that both pilots Sunday morning were dumbstruck as they accelerated down what they thought was a 7,000-foot runway and suddenly found themselves facing the end of the concrete while still far below flying speed.
There would have been only two options: Try to stop and guarantee a major crash, or try to fly, and maybe, just maybe, be able to lift away from the nightmare.
Most of us would have chosen to try to fly, because that's where pilots live.
In this case, the Comair jet may have been pulled up at too slow a speed, in which case it would have been able to lift off the ground, riding a cushion of compressed air referred to as "ground effect."
But it would not have been able to climb above that cushion -- which is, at best, half the wingspan -- and skimming above the ground no more than 20 feet high at more than 100 miles per hour with no ability to get over the trees and farm buildings ahead, the physics of the situation would have been impossible to overcome.
In the aftermath of the deadly postcrash fire, one of the NTSB's most important duties will be to answer the questions of why, after 30 years of the FAA's mandating safer, slow-to-burn materials in airliners, the jet cabin burst into flames so intense that only one person, co-pilot James M. Polehinke, survived.
The accident at Lexington ended almost five years without a major airline accident in the United States, but the rest of the story is that the five-year safety streak was an unprecedented result of finally learning to anticipate human mistakes and insulate against them before they metastasize into an accident.
In other words, it's never enough to just order people not to fail. We have to build the system to safely absorb human screwups, and for the most part our success rate in doing that has been spectacular.
In the 15 to 25 major contributing factors that the NTSB will eventually discuss in issuing a final report on Comair 5191 (in perhaps a year or more), every one will need to be addressed and solved.
But in this case, we're very lucky, because a single, universal procedure can be added that will prevent this type of accident from ever occurring again -- a procedure prohibiting takeoff unless the nonflying pilot repeats the runway the flight is cleared to use, and the flying pilot reads in full the compass heading of the aircraft as it sits aligned with the runway. Source
Details About The Plane:CRJ-100
It's been a rough ride for Comair on many fronts in the past year or two.
There's the labor situation: wrangling with the pilots, flight attendants and mechanics over new contracts, asking for major concessions, saying the airline had to have pay and benefit cuts to remain competitive.
Just this past week, 9News got word that Delta was looking to bid out some flights Comair runs now, which would cost Comair planes and as a result, jobs.
Insiders tell 9News there's been a major shift in employee morale and many have left for other jobs.
No one's questioning the plane itself though.
The bombardier Canadair regional jet, or CRJ-100, has a great safety record. it runs on newer technology.
The first prototype began flying in May 1991.
Its flight deck includes a modern avionics system and it has no record of regular mechanical problems.
It seats 50, so Flight 5191 was three shy of a full load of passengers.
Comair bought this particular plane new in January 2001.
The president of Comair says its maintenance records were up to date; in fact its last maintenance was just yesterday, although 9News doesn't know what for.
The plane had 12,048 cycles -- that's takeoffs and landings -- and 14,500 hours of flying, a fairly young plane in all.
It is the third crash for Comair, the first just after Union's David Mueller started the airline in 1977.
Flight 444 was a Piper Navajo, a prop plane. It took off from CVG October 8, 1979, banked right and crashed 65 feet from runway 18.
None of the eight people aboard survived. the FAA blamed an engine malfunction.
Then in January 1997. Comair Flight 3272 crashed on its approach to Detroit.
That also was a prop plane, an Embraer Brasilia EMB-120.
Twenty-nine people died in that crash.
The FAA determined icing on the wings caused the plane to go down.
Shortly after that, Delta bought Comair. the airline also switched to an all jet fleet.
As for the runway question, at this point, there is no confirmation that the plane took off from the wrong runway.
Pilots tell 9News that the runway configuration at Lexington's airport is such that runways 422 (the long runway) and 826 (the short one) are very close to each other, so they could see where confusion could come in.
Add in the dark and the rain early Sunday morning and that could contribute to any confusion.
However, Lexington is a frequent Comair route, and most Comair pilots are very familiar with it.
Comair also has an excellent training program.
The tower was open at the time and one would hope the controller would have seen the plane on a wrong runway, although at such a small airport there may be only one person handling multiple duties at the same time.
Finally, this isn't the first crash at Lexington.
Almost two years ago on August 30, 2002, a Lear jet air ambulance crashed across the very same busy highway, as it tried to land.
One of five people aboard died.
We're gathering a lot of other background to try to put perspective on this tragedy and we'll bring you more as we get it.
Comair has a number set up for anyone who is seeking
Information about the passengers onboard Comair Flight 5191. That number is (800) 801-0088. Source
Comair Crash Followed Changes at Runway
by Frank Langfitt
All Things Considered, August 28, 2006 · Federal investigators are looking into whether recent changes an airport in Lexington, Ky., may have contributed to a crash that killed 49 people. The pilot took a wrong turn and tried to take off at a runway that was too short for his Comair jet. Officials say lights on the runway were not working at the time. They also say the airport had recently closed a taxi-route.
When Comair Flight 5191 tried to take off from Blue Grass International Airport before dawn Sunday, federal investigators say it did so from a runway where the lights were out of service.
Aviation experts say taking off from a dark runway is not unheard of. But Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, says finding out why it happened Sunday is central to their investigation.
"We are seeking to determine exactly what the status of those lights is," Hersman said. "What their function was, who had access to them and all of those questions are what our investigators are trying to find answers to today."
There had been other recent changes at the airport as well. The main runway had been resurfaced. And a week before the crash, the airport apparently changed the taxi-route to the main runway. Hersman says officials will be examining so-called NOTAMs, the change notices airports issue to airline companies.
Investigators are now poring over 32 minutes of cockpit voice data as well as the flight data recorder to figure out what the tower and the pilot said to each other before the tragic mistake. Source
Comair plane took off from wrong runway
By JEFFREY McMURRAY, Associated Press WriterSun Aug 27, 7:40 PM ET
A commuter jet mistakenly trying to take off on a runway that was too short crashed into a field Sunday and burst into flames, killing 49 people and leaving the lone survivor — a co-pilot — in critical condition, federal investigators said.
Preliminary flight data from Comair Flight 5191's black box recorders and the damage at the scene indicate the plane, a CRJ-100 regional jet, took off from the shortest runway at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said.
The 3,500-foot-long strip, unlit and barely half the length of the airport's main runway, is not intended for commercial flights. The twin-engine CRJ-100 would have needed 5,000 feet to fully get off the ground, aviation experts said.
It wasn't immediately clear how the plane ended up on the shorter runway in the predawn darkness. There was a light rain Sunday, and the strip veers off at a V from the main runway, which had just been repaved last week.
"We will be looking into performance data, we will be looking at the weight of the aircraft, we will be looking at speeds, we will pull all that information off," Hersman said.
The Atlanta-bound plane plowed through a perimeter fence and crashed in a field less than mile from the end of that runway at about 6:07 a.m. Aerial images of the crash site in the rolling hills of Kentucky's horse country showed trees damaged at the end of the short runway and the nose of the plane almost parallel to the small strip.
When rescuers reached it, the plane was largely intact but in flames. A police officer burned his arms dragging the only survivor from the cracked cockpit.
The flames kept rescuers from reaching anyone else aboard — a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children and a University of Kentucky official among them.
"They were taking off, so I'm sure they had a lot of fuel on board," Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said. "Most of the injuries are going to be due to fire-related deaths."
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency had no indication that terrorism was involved in any way in what was the country's worst domestic plane crash in five years.
It's rare for a plane to get on the wrong runway, but "sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one," said Saint Louis University aerospace professor emeritus Paul Czysz.
The worst such crash came on Oct. 31, 2000, when a Los Angeles-bound Singapore Airlines jumbo jet mistakenly went down a runway at Taiwan's Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport that had been closed for repairs because of a recent typhoon. The resulting collision with construction equipment killed 83 people on board.
Comair President Don Bornhorst said maintenance for the plane that crashed Sunday was up to date and its three-member flight crew was experienced and had been flying that airplane for some time.
"We are absolutely, totally committed to doing everything humanly possible to determine the cause of this accident," Bornhorst said. "One of the most damaging things that can happen to an investigation of this magnitude is for speculation or for us to guess at what may be happening."
Most of the passengers aboard the flight had planned to connect to other flights in Atlanta and did not have family waiting for them, said the Rev. Harold Boyce, a volunteer chaplain at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport.
One woman was there expecting her sister. The two had planned to fly together to catch an Alaskan cruise, Boyce said.
"Naturally, she was very sad," Boyce said. "She was handling it. She was in tears."
The only survivor of the crash was identified as first officer James M. Polehinke, who was in critical condition after surgery at the University of Kentucky hospital.
The other crew members were Capt. Jeffrey Clay, who was hired by Erlanger, Ky.-based Comair in 1999, and flight attendant Kelly Heyer, hired in 2004. Polehinke has been with Comair since 2002.
The plane had undergone routine maintenance as recently as Saturday and had 14,500 flight hours, "consistent with aircraft of that age," Bornhorst said.
Investigators from the FAA and NTSB were at the scene, and Bornhorst said the airline was working to contact relatives of the passengers.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush, who is spending a long weekend at his family's summer home on the Maine coast, was being briefed on the crash.
"The president was deeply saddened by the news of the plane crash in Kentucky today," she said. "His sympathies are with the many families of the victims of this tragedy."
Among those killed were a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon. Jon Hooker, a former minor-league baseball player, had just married Scarlett Parlsey the night before the crash in a fairy tale wedding ceremony complete with a horse-drawn carriage and 300 friends.
"It's so tragic because he was so happy last night," said Keith Madison, who coached Hooker's baseball team at the University of Kentucky and attended the wedding. "It's just an incredible turn of events. It's really painful."
The crash marks the end of what has been called the "safest period in aviation history" in the United States. There has not been a major crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 plunged into a residential neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people, including five on the ground. Source
Kentucky crash may imperil Comair's survival
Sunday's crash killed 49, raises questions about future of Delta subsidiary
The Associated Press
Updated: 4:37 p.m. ET Aug 28, 2006

ATLANTA - The deadly Kentucky crash involving a Comair flight could make the regional carrier's survival even tougher.
Comair has been operating under bankruptcy protection for nearly a year and has been battling with its flight attendants over pay cuts. Last week its parent, Delta Air Lines Inc., put some of its regional jet service out to bid — a move that could weaken Comair. Sunday's crash that killed 49 people puts Comair in an even more precarious position.
"Certainly, there's a large burden on both management and the employees," Standard & Poor's airline analyst Philip Baggaley said Monday.
Pete Janhunen, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Comair's pilots, said many people saw the cost cuts coming, but the crash adds to the airline's problems.
"The unfortunate truth is it is a Comair plane, and it will have some reverberation outside the Comair pilot group and the Comair airline," Janhunen said. "I'd say it's probably too early to tell how this will all play out."
Neither Comair nor Delta would talk about Comair's future on Monday, though Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said, "We will be answering those restructuring questions at some point."
Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said in an e-mail that the airline believes "it is too early to have this conversation."
"It would be insensitive to the families affected to do so at this time," Talton said, adding that Delta will revisit the issue "when the timing is more appropriate." Delta has been largely silent since the crash, referring questions to Comair.
The problems facing Comair were already clear before Comair Flight 5191 crashed after trying to take off from the wrong runway at the Lexington, Ky., airport on its way to Atlanta.
On Aug. 22, Atlanta-based Delta said it had requested bids for some of its regional jet service, much of which is now handled by Erlanger, Ky.-based Comair. The announcement came a day before Comair was to return to negotiations with its flight attendants over concessions the company said it must have to get out of bankruptcy.
David Treitel, chief executive of aviation consulting firm SH&E in New York, said the cost issue is critical to Comair's survival.
"The basic issue that Comair faces in terms of its business is obviously dealing with the crash, but also the issue of responding to the Delta (bid request) and dealing with a cost structure that enables it to be competitive," Treitel said.
The bid request that Delta put out could mean less revenue for Comair, and the crash now could mean fewer ticket sales, at least in the short term, analysts said. Comair President Don Bornhorst said before the crash that Delta's announcement about the bid request made it even more important that Comair complete its restructuring so that it can keep what it has and win new service.
"I think very much depends on the extent to which people will continue to fly Comair," said Jeff Morris, a University of Dayton law professor and bankruptcy expert.
If pilot error is ultimately determined to be the cause of the crash, that might not cause a long-term impact on the airline if it isn't seen as a systemwide problem, Morris said.
"This seems like a tragic circumstance where one individual or more than one individual led to this tragic result and I would not expect it to recur," he said.
Another issue is whether the impact on Comair will trickle down to Delta, which is hoping to emerge from bankruptcy by the middle of 2007. That might help explain Delta's decision to refer questions to Comair, Morris said.
"To the extent they might try to keep this from combining in people's minds, that's I assume their goal," he said.
The ValuJet casePlane crashes generally don't doom an airline, but they have done so.
ValuJet Flight 592 plunged into the Everglades in 1996, killing 110 people. ValuJet soon disappeared and was reborn as Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Airways, a discount carrier that has made significant inroads at its hub in Atlanta that put it in direct competition with Delta on many routes.
As a result of the ValuJet crash, passenger airlines can no longer carry as cargo the oxygen generators blamed for starting the fire that brought down that flight. The maintenance contractor blamed for the mishandling of the oxygen generators — the fire started because safety caps weren't installed — was convicted in 1999 of criminal charges of recklessly supplying the devices and went out of business. The Federal Aviation Administration also ordered installation of fire detection and suppression systems in cargo areas.
Analysts said that the information made public so far about the Comair crash shows no similarities to the ValuJet crash, and that could be a good thing for Comair.
"There were a lot of other issues that came out regarding the ValuJet procedures that were a concern for the public," said SH&E's Treitel. "Thus far, we haven't seen any of those types of reports, and I don't expect that we will."
S&P's Baggaley said the crash could actually have a bonding effect among Comair employees.
"Events like this sometimes have the effect of bringing the company together because it focuses them on a problem they all share rather than one that pits management against labor," he said. Source
FAA broke policy at airport Only one air traffic controller was on duty before crash
By Mark Pitsch, James R. Carroll and Tom LoftusThe Courier-Journal
The Federal Aviation Administration violated its policy by having only one Lexington air traffic controller on duty to direct Comair Flight 5191 before it crashed, an official said yesterday.
The controller at Blue Grass Airport was performing two jobs Sunday when he cleared the jet for takeoff.
He told investigators he wasn't watching as the plane mistakenly left on a runway that was too short for the plane's size and weight, an official said.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown declined to say whether the lack of two controllers might have played a role in the crash, which killed 49 of the 50 people aboard. She said the tower now will have two controllers at all times.
When officials learned after the crash that the policy hadn't been followed, "they directed the facility manager to ensure that a minimum of two controllers are on duty at all times -- one for radar operations and one for surface operations," Brown told The Courier-Journal.
Also yesterday, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation said:
The controller cleared the plane for takeoff but was performing administrative duties and did not watch it.
The controller told investigators the pilot was not disoriented or confused, although the crew initially boarded the wrong plane.
Comair crew members had not flown at the airport since it changed the path that they should have taken to get to the appropriate runway.
The regional jet was trying to get airborne about 6:10 a.m. before it sheared off a fence and trees and crashed.
Relatives are scheduled to visit the crash scene today for a private tour and then attend a private memorial. Policy broken
Since Nov. 16, 2005, the FAA has required two controllers in all towers on all shifts, Brown said.
A Nov. 16 document from the Lexington tower's air traffic manager, obtained by The Courier-Journal, says that "our staffing rarely allows for a second controller to be assigned to the midshift," or the midnight shift.
The manager wrote that the FAA was "requiring that facilities separate the radar function from the tower function."
The radar function involves controlling the landing and departure of planes out to about 40 miles from the tower.
The tower function focuses on controlling ground traffic at the airport, including airport vehicles, providing clearances to aircraft to taxi, and giving updated weather data to flight crews.
Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the union has pushed for a minimum of two controllers since 1993 because one is not safe.
"You have to have that redundancy," Church said. "What if you have to go to the bathroom? What if you get sick? What if an accident happens and you need somebody to relieve you?"
The Blue Grass tower has 19 controllers assigned to it to cover all shifts -- 17 experienced controllers and two trainees, Church said.
Mike Overly, editor of, an online aviation safety forum hosted by the Aviation Safety Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Worthington, Ohio, said tower staffing may be a factor in the accident, but not the only one.
Overly agreed that having two controllers makes operations safer.
"A lot of guys have their heads down on their computers. ... Having somebody who can look out the window is good," he said.
Kathleen Bergen, external communications manager for the FAA's Southern Region, said the airport had two controllers on duty on weekend overnight shifts until four or five months ago, when air traffic dropped to the point where only one was needed. Controller didn't watch takeoff
Yesterday, National Transportation Safety Board investigators interviewed the controller who was on duty Sunday morning.
The controller said he had a "clear, unobstructed" view of the runway, said Debbie Hersman, an NTSB member.
He told investigators that he cleared the flight for takeoff on Runway 22, the longer runway, and then turned his back to perform administrative duties as the plane taxied, Hersman said.
"He said the last time he saw the aircraft was on the taxiway on the way to the runway," Hersman said.
He then heard an explosion, she said. "At that point he realized there was an accident," she said.
Asked if the controller should have watched the aircraft take off, Hersman said, "The decisions about what needs to be done and what needs to be changed, that's all a part of the NTSB analysis."
The FAA's Bergen said the FAA would not comment on that question.
Robert Spragg, a former Marine Corps pilot and a New York lawyer who specializes in aviation accident litigation, said the FAA's Air Traffic Control Manual says a controller shall visually scan the runways "to the maximum extent possible."
"That gives a loophole for a controller to tend to other things commanding his attention," Spragg said.
He said it is unclear whether a second controller would have mattered. "What should shed a lot of light on that will be the transcript of the conversation between the tower and the pilots," Spragg said.
Hersman said she couldn't describe the controller's work history over the previous 24 hours.
Bergen declined to say how many hours the controller had worked before the crash. She said the FAA will not release the name of the controller. Got on wrong plane
Hersman said the crew "rolled through their taxi to their takeoff." That means the plane began takeoff as soon as it completed the turn from the taxiway to the runway, rather than stopping.
The controller also said the pilot didn't seem confused or disoriented.
But Hersman said the crew originally boarded the wrong plane and began preparations after checking in and picking up paperwork at 5:15 a.m. Sunday.
A Comair ramp worker told the crew that they were on the wrong plane, so they switched, she said.
She said co-pilot James Polehinke was to be in control of the plane after it was lined up on the runway, but pilot Jeffrey Clay steered the jet down the taxiway to Runway 26.
Hersman provided no new information on why the crew took the plane to the shorter runway. Crew's experience
The pilot and co-pilot had not used Blue Grass Airport since it changed the route the Comair jet would have had to take to get to the longer runway earlier this month.
Clay, 35, had been at the airport six times in the last two years, most recently in June, Hersman said.
He had 4,700 total hours flying, and 3,000 in a regional jet, including 1,567 as the pilot in command. He arrived in Lexington at 3:30 p.m. Saturday as a passenger on another aircraft, Hersman said.
Polehinke, 44, had been at the airport 10 times in the last two years, most recently in May, she said.
He had 5,424 total hours flying, including 3,564 as a co-pilot in a regional jet. He arrived at 2 a.m. Saturday as a crew member on a flight originating in New York.
Investigators are trying to reconstruct the crew's work and leisure time during the 72 hours before the accident.
Reporters Tom Loftus and Mark Pitsch can be reached at (502) 875-5136. Reporter James R. Carroll can be reached at (202) 906-8141. Source
Logan dispatches team to study Comair crash
Monday, August 28, 2006
Logan International Airport officials dispatched a three-person "go team" to the site of a fatal Comair plane crash in Lexington, Ky., hoping to gather information and intelligence for handling any future aviation accidents at the Boston airport. Robert J. Donahue, fire chief for the Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Rescue Department, which serves Logan, said the team includes Sergeant George Chiason of the State Police Troop F, which covers Logan; Massport Fire Captain Don Collins; and Ron Stella, an operations shift manager at Logan.
"Fortunately, events like this don't happen frequently, but we take any opportunity we can to learn,'' Donahue said. "For us, it's a real-world case study." Forty-nine people died in the crash of Comair Flight 5191 as it took off from Blue Grass Airport Sunday, and the plane's co-pilot, the sole survivor rescued, remains in grave condition in a local hospital.
Although the Kentucky airport where the crash occurred Saturday is much smaller than Logan, with just one main commercial jet runway compared to Logan's four, Donahue said Massport officials anticipate they can learn a lot to evaluate and improve their emergency-management plans. Among other areas, the three officials will be studying aspects of the response to the Lexington crash such as how debris at the crash site is charted and handled and how well airport arrangements work for dealing with the family members of the dead passengers.
Logan has not experienced an aviation fatality, Donahue said, since a January 1980 accident when a World Airways jet skidded off a snowy runway and plunged into Boston Harbor, throwing two passengers to their deaths. The three Logan officials are expected to stay in Lexington most of this week evaluating the response to the Comair crash.(By Peter J. Howe, Globe staff) Source
Controller policies violated, FAA says
August 30, 2006
LEXINGTON -- The lone air traffic controller on duty the morning Comair Flight 5191 crashed had cleared the jet for takeoff, then turned his back to do some ``administrative duties" as the aircraft veered down the wrong runway, a federal investigator said yesterday. The crash after takeoff Sunday killed 49 people -- all who were on board except first officer James Polehinke, who was in critical condition yesterday. Earlier yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged violating its own policies when it assigned only one controller to the airport tower that morning. The policy is outlined in a 2005 directive requiring that control tower observations and radar approach operations be handled separately. (AP) Source
Airport should have had 2 controllers, FAA says
By Brandon Ortiz
McClatchy Newspapers
LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged Tuesday that it violated its own rule by having only one air-traffic controller, rather than two, monitoring the Blue Grass Airport on Sunday.
And the lone controller who was there last saw Comair Flight 5191 before it taxied onto the wrong runway, according to investigators.
After clearing the plane for takeoff on Runway 22, the controller "turned his back to perform administrative duties," said Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. "This controller did not have visual contact with the aircraft," she said.
Moments later, when he turned again, Flight 5191 had crashed, killing 49 of 50 people onboard.
Although his view of the runway was clear and unobstructed, the controller did not actually see which runway the plane lined up on, he told investigators Tuesday.
Flight 5191 took off from Runway 26, which is much shorter than Runway 22, where it should have been.
Asked whether that was a mistake on the controller's part, Hersman said that any analysis will be a part of the NTSB's report and recommendations, which could be months or even a year away.
Some experts say that, if two controllers had been in the tower, the crash might have been averted.
The controller was performing at least two jobs, including radar and ground control. That's too much for one person, the flight controllers union said.
"That may be part of the problem there," said Ted Gaty, a retired businessman and private pilot from Lexington who has flown into Blue Grass. "Maybe it's because there was no ground control operator."
Scott Zoeckler, a retired Lexington air traffic controller, said the controller's main role is to direct air traffic to make sure planes aren't getting in each others' way - not to make sure the pilots are doing their jobs correctly.
Zoeckler said he has been in contact with the controller, who has 17 years experience, but would not offer his name.
"It's a hard time for him," Zoeckler said. "He did his job. He was doing everything he was supposed to do. And he turns around and sees this ball of fire."
The FAA requires that the airport be monitored by at least two controllers, but one of them did not have to be in Lexington, according to a memo sent to employees by Blue Grass Air Traffic Manager Duff Ortman in November.
The memo said, in part: "The Eastern Terminal Service Director is requiring that facilities separate the radar function from the tower function."
One of the jobs was to be done by a controller in Indianapolis, Ortman said. That never happened, according to the union.
From January to March, the Lexington tower did have two controllers, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, an employee union.
However, since March, there has only been one controller on all overnight shifts at Blue Grass, said Andrew Cantwell, the union's regional vice president for the southern states.
Cantwell said he knew of instances at other airports where the lone controller had a heart attack or fell down stairs and the tower was unmanned until help arrived.
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen had previously said the overnight shift in Lexington was manned by one person only on the weekends. However, late Tuesday, she said they have had - even during the week - only one controller overnight. She apologized for releasing incorrect information.
"Traffic at Lexington airport during overnight shifts is very low, with an average of fewer than eight aircraft between midnight and 6 a.m.," she said in a statement. "At this traffic level, only a single tower controller is needed to safely separate surface traffic."
Bergen said the two-controller mandate was still in place on Sunday, when the Bombardier CRJ-100 took off on the wrong runway, crashing into hilly, tree-filled terrain.
"Controllers not only have to do their jobs without making mistakes; they have to maintain vigilance and try (to) prevent other people's mistakes from becoming accidents," said Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of the union. "If there aren't enough controllers to do it, we can't maintain the safety margin."
Marlin, in a statement, said the FAA, which employs the controllers and manages the towers, has required two controllers during overnight shifts only after accidents or near misses.
After time passes without incident, "the pendulum swings back" and the FAA returns to allowing one controller during midnight-to-8 a.m. shifts, she said.
"Unfortunately for the people in Lexington, the pendulum swung against them," Marlin said.
Nineteen controllers are assigned by the FAA to the Lexington tower. It once had two controllers working midnight shifts on the weekend, but staffing on that shift was cut back about five months ago, after air traffic slowed, Bergen said.
The union says the shift was cut because somebody retired. It says its contract with the FAA requires the facility to have at least 21 controllers.
This weekend, the airport will return to two-man crews for the midnight shift, Bergen said. The change was made after it was brought to the FAA's attention that there was only one controller on Sunday.
Cantwell said the same mandate was sent to Duluth, Minn., and Savannah, Ga., this week.
Lexington's staffing levels are close to those of similar-sized airports, she said. Chattanooga, for example, has the same number of controllers.
Marlin, the union official, said that whether Lexington's staffing is comparable to other airports is irrelevant. Having one person in the tower is never a good idea, she said.
The number of flights taking off in the morning in Lexington "is just too many for one person," Marlin said.
Two flights had departed before Flight 5191 on Sunday. Neither the FAA nor the NTSB has disclosed whether there were other planes in Lexington's air space, which controllers also must monitor, at the time of the crash.
Some experts disagree on whether an extra controller would have made a difference.
"We've always had one person at that time of day," said Zoeckler, the retired Lexington air traffic controller. "It's never been a problem."
Charlie Monette, president of Aero-Tech, a flight school at the airport, said the tower has a separate ground control person during busy times, but in slow times one person does both ground and air control.
The second person might have spotted Flight 5191's runway mistake, but by the time he or she did, "it would have been too late," Monette said.
Zoeckler, a 35-year veteran controller who retired two years ago after 27 years at Blue Grass Airport, said he knows of instances where pilots have lined up on the wrong runway at Blue Grass and have either caught themselves or been advised of the error by the tower.
"It's a matter of awareness of the runway. Before last week, it was just a pilot-awareness issue," he said. "The signage out there is perfectly fine."
Hersman said the NTSB is still working with the FAA to obtain "guidance, rules, requirements and what is appropriate for visual contact."
The controllers union has said for more than a decade that the United States needs to hire more controllers or it will face a major crisis.
In 2002, the FAA employed 15,606 controllers, according to Cantwell. It employed 14,305 this August.
During that time, air traffic in the U.S. has increased, the union notes.
The problem is compounded by tight federal budgets and the fact that controllers hired after the 1981 controller strike - in which President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 strikers - are nearing retirement eligibility, the union has said.
In Lexington, seven controllers are expected to retire in the next four years, according to an FAA report.
The FAA says it is addressing the problem and has a plan to hire 11,800 new controllers over the next 10 years. Source

NTSB: Wrong runway wasn't Comair crew's only preflight error
LEXINGTON, Kentucky (CNN) -- As Comair Flight 5191 began rolling down the wrong runway, the lone air traffic controller on duty at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport was busy with paperwork. And the 47 passengers onboard were unaware that the flight crew had started that Sunday morning by mistakenly getting onto another plane.
Seconds later, the commuter jet crashed, killing everyone onboard except the co-pilot, who remains in critical condition at a Lexington hospital.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday acknowledged that only one controller was in the tower, in violation of the agency's policy, when the Comair jet crashed. (Watch new findings emerging about crash -- 2:28)
The revelation came after CNN obtained a November 2005 FAA memorandum spelling out staffing levels at the airport. The memo says two controllers are needed -- one to monitor air traffic on radar and another to perform other tower functions, such as communicating with taxiing aircraft. (Text of the memo -- PDF)
When two controllers are not available, the memo says, the radar monitoring function should be handed off to the FAA center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The FAA told CNN that the lone controller at Blue Grass was performing both functions Sunday in violation of the policy.
The controller's last look at the Comair CRJ-100 occurred when it was on the taxiway, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
"He had cleared the aircraft for takeoff, and he turned his back and performed administrative duties in the tower," said Debbie Hersman, the NTSB member in charge of the investigation. (Watch what pilots may have seen -- 2:09)
She said the controller cleared Flight 5191 to take off on Runway 22, the 7,000-foot lighted runway used by commercial jets.
Instead, the crew tried to take off on the unlit Runway 26, which was about half as long. (Airport layout)
The controller told the NTSB he had an unobstructed view of both runways, Hersman said, but because he was not looking in that direction, he was unaware of a problem until he heard the crash.
Air traffic controllers are not responsible for making sure pilots are on the right runway, John Nance, a pilot and aviation analyst, told The Associated Press. "You clear him for takeoff and that's the end of it," Nance said, according to the AP.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Tuesday that in 1993 a plane mistakenly lined up on Runway 26 instead of Runway 22, but the tower noticed the error in time.
Turning onto the wrong runway was not the only mistake the crew made Sunday, according to the NTSB. When they arrived at the airport at 5:15 a.m., the captain and first officer boarded the wrong plane and turned on the power before a ramp worker pointed out their mistake. (Watch the NTSB describe the latest findings -- 7:27)
Hersman said it was the flight's captain, Jeffrey Clay, who taxied the aircraft into position at the start of the wrong runway. Clay then turned over the controls to the co-pilot, James Polehinke, who was flying the plane when it crashed. Hersman said that was standard procedure since only the captain can reach the tiller used to steer the plane while it's on the ground.
Hersman said both crew members were familiar with the Lexington airport but that neither had been to the airport since a repaving project a week earlier altered the taxiway route.
She said investigators will continue to gather information on how the pilot and co-pilot spent the 72 hours before the flight. She said toxicology testing for alcohol and drugs is routine.
Staffing boosted after crash
Andrew Cantwell, regional vice president of the controller's union, said he could not say with certainty whether additional staffing would have prevented the crash, but a second person would have allowed the controller to focus on operations.
In a statement Tuesday, the FAA suggested that a second controller would not have prevented the accident.
"Had there been a second controller present on Sunday, that controller would have been responsible for separating airborne traffic with radar, not aircraft on the airport's runways," the statement said.
The FAA this week increased overnight staffing at Lexington as well as at airports in Duluth, Minnesota, and Savannah, Georgia, Cantwell said.
Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said there has been a net loss of 1,081 controllers in the last three years, due largely to a wave of retirements, the AP reported.
Tire marks indicate the plane's wheels went into grass beyond the end of the runway. It became airborne after hitting an earthen berm, clipped a perimeter fence and struck a stand of trees before hitting the ground, said Hersman. (Watch a tour of the crash site -- 1:42)
A longtime pilot familiar with Blue Grass Airport told the Lexington newspaper that the airport is confusing and getting onto the wrong runway is easier than it sounds.
Russ Whitney told the paper that Runway 22, the one Flight 5191 should have been on, has a hump in the middle, so pilots cannot see the whole thing as they begin takeoff. Runway 22 and the much shorter Runway 26 can appear to be the same length, he said, according to the newspaper.
On Wednesday, victims' families were scheduled to tour the crash site before a memorial service, the AP reported.
CNN's Mike Ahlers and David Mattingly contributed to this report.
Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report. Source
Attorneys Say Lawsuits Over Plane Crash A Certainty:
Legal experts say because of the circumstances surrounding the crash of Comair Flight 5191, it is a virtual certainty the commuter airline will be sued.
They also say parent company Delta Air Line's bankruptcy won't be able to protect Comair. University of Kentucky law professor Mary Davis says that because people trust their lives to airlines, carriers have a high legal obligation to their passengers.
She called it a "very stringent standard of care" that wasn't met.
Stanley Chesley, a Cincinnati lawyer who successfully sued Libya in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, says the crash at Blue Grass Airport that killed 49 people and injured the first officer was not mere negligence. Chesley said punitive conduct was involved.
He said yesterday that Comair will be the focus of any lawsuit. Source
Flight Controller Turned His Back Before Comair Flight 5191 Crashed
(WKYT) - Government investigators say the air traffic controller at Lexington's Bluegrass airport had turned his back when Comair Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway. The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged violating its own policies by having only one controller assigned to the airport that morning. The controller says he cleared the flight for takeoff and then turned around. 49 people died when the commuter jet went down the wrong runway and then crashed just after takeoff Sunday morning. Flight recorders show the co-pilot and only survivor, James Polehinke, was at the controls at the time of the crash. Polehinke is still listed in critical condition at the University of Kentucky Hospital. Source