Comair flight had lots of odd things
This tragedy continues to get stranger. Now there is also evidence that the crew earlier that day had mistakenly gotten on the wrong plane. (Article below.)
I think the NTSB has a point that a second person in the tower probably wouldn't have mattered, given that ATC tower folks don't have to monitor a plane after they clear it for takeoff. Yeah, the guy perhaps shouldn't have been doing paperwork, but even if he'd been monitoring the radar or communicating with aircraft, it seems reasonble that he still wouldn't have noticed that the jet was on the wrong runway.
I tend to agree with all the issues re: the confusing layout of the airport, the hump in the long runway that makes it appear shorter, the new painting, etc. I'm sure all of that contributed.
What I still can't comprehend is why two experienced pilots would have proceeded to attempt a takeoff in predawn hours when the runway lights were out. That just seems like a huge red flag to me (particularly since the lights on the correct runway presumably were lit). It will be interesting when the copilot recovers enough to be questioned. Assuming, of course, that he did not suffer head injuries sufficient to have cleared his recent memory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.