Lack of lights noted by pilot before crash

Thursday, January 18, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Seconds before the crash of a commuter jet that took off from the wrong runway, the co-pilot noted it was "weird" that the Lexington, Ky., airstrip had no lights, according to the transcript of a cockpit recording released Wednesday. Forty-nine of the 50 people aboard Comair Flight 5191 died Aug. 27 after the plane took off in the dark from a runway too short for a passenger jet.

The plane struggled to get into the air and went down in flames.

Co-pilot James Polehinke was the lone survivor, losing a leg and suffering brain damage. He has told relatives he remembers nothing about that morning.

According to federal investigators, Capt. Jeffrey Clay taxied the plane onto the wrong runway at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport before Polehinke took over the controls for takeoff.

Polehinke said: "I'll take us to Atlanta." Clay responded, "Sure."

Polehinke said it was "weird with no lights," according to the National Transportation Safety Board transcript. Clay responded, "Yeah." And then, "Whoa."

It was the first time the public was given access to the transcripts of what the Comair pilots told each other in the cockpit during the ill-fated flight, which was the deadliest American aviation disaster in five years.

Sixteen of the passengers suffered smoke inhalation, indicating they survived the initial impact, the NTSB said. Other passengers sustained internal and brain injuries, broken bones, severed limbs and burns.

In a statement, Comair said: "We recognize the investigation is a long and difficult process for the families, especially when announcements -- such as today's -- receive intense public scrutiny. Our desire is to learn as much as we can in order to prevent these kinds of accidents from happening again."

Numerous lawsuits have been filed accusing Comair of negligence. However, the airline has sued the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration, contending they are partially responsible.

A week before the crash, the taxiways at Blue Grass were altered as part of a construction project, but the maps and charts used in the cockpits of Comair and other airlines were not updated. The FAA did notify airlines of the changes through a separate announcement.

The transcripts and other documents were also the first time federal officials identified Christopher Damron as the lone air traffic controller on duty in the tower at the time of the crash.

The jet was supposed to take off from the 7,000-foot main runway, called runway 22, but instead used 3,500-foot runway 26, which is meant only for smaller planes.

The NTSB has said Damron cleared the jet for takeoff, then turned away to do administrative work and did not see the plane turn down the wrong runway.

According to documents released Wednesday, Damron initially told investigators he watched the plane move onto runway 22. Later he changed his account to explain he just saw it on the taxiway leading to runway 22.

After finishing his administrative work, Damron "heard a crash and saw a fireball west of the airport," the NTSB said.

Damron was initially placed on leave after the crash but returned to work late last year. A call to his Lexington home went unanswered Wednesday.

As they prepared for takeoff, Polehinke asked, "What runway?" and inquired about runway 24 -- which does not exist. Clay immediately responded, "It's 22."

An engineering report also released Wednesday concluded the pilots never tried to abort the takeoff or realized they were on the wrong runway.

Leading up to takeoff, the pilot and co-pilot discussed their families, co-workers and job opportunities.

Louise Roselle, one of the attorneys representing victims' families, said the pilots' conversation about searching for other jobs reinforces one of the central issues in the lawsuits related to the crash.

"It reinforces how Comair has been treating its pilots," Roselle said.

Associated Press writer Brett Barrouquere in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.

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