NTSB: Comair jet pilot attempted takeoff from short, poorly lit runway

Monday, August 28, 2006

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In the minutes after Comair Flight 5191 barreled off a runway and burst into flames, snapping trees along its path, the only question worth asking was how to save the 50 people aboard.

Lexington police Officer Bryan Jared reached into the broken cockpit and pulled out the plane's first officer, burning his arms in the process, but for the rest there was nothing he or any of the other rescuers could do.

The horror of the worst U.S. plane disaster in nearly five years was only worsened as investigators examined how it happened. Somehow the plane's pilot had attempted to take off from the wrong runway, a narrow stretch of old concrete about 1,500 feet too short for the commuter plane.

Preliminary flight data from the plane's black box recorders and the damage at the scene indicate the 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, with less lighting and barely half the length of the airport's main runway, is only intended for daylight takeoffs and not for commercial flights. The twin-engine plane 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 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. Rescuers could only reach first officer James M. Polehinke, 44, who was in critical condition after surgery at the University of Kentucky hospital.

"He's very lucky," said Dr. Andrew C. Bernard, a trauma surgeon.

Those killed included a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a director of Habitat for Humanity International, a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children and a University of Kentucky official.

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.

The crew members who died 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.

All 49 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage, said Stacy Floden, spokeswoman for the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

No positive identifications had been made, and preliminary autopsies had been done on 16 or 17 bodies, she said.

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.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher cut short a trip to Germany and was returning to Kentucky on Monday afternoon, spokeswoman Jodi Whitaker said.

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 Jon Hooker, a former minor-league baseball player, and Scarlett Parsley; they had wed the night before the crash in a fairy-tale 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."

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.

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.


Associated Press Writer Leslie Miller in Washington and Harry Weber in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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