Key Lime Blames Blowing Snow for Near-Miss in Denver

Key Lime Air, the cargo carrier involved in a near-collision at Denver International Airport last week, said Tuesday that blowing snow obscured the color-coded runway and taxiway lights.

The Key Lime Air flight had been cleared Friday to go from the cargo area onto a taxiway, but entered a runway where a Frontier Airlines plane was landing.

The Frontier crew saw the other plane about the same time that the control tower issued an alert. The airliner ascended quickly, Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said.

"We apologize to Frontier and their passengers. We take full responsibility for it," said Cliff Honeycutt, owner and president of Key Lime Air, which is based at Centennial Airport.

The pilot and the tower realized about the same time that the Key Lime Air plane had made a wrong turn onto the runway, Honeycutt said.

Todd Schleibaum, chief pilot for Key Lime Air, said that the pilot had given the control tower his position and that the tower asked him for verification.

"Our pilot had gotten far enough down the runway to where he could see white lights along the runway edge. On a taxiway, those lights are blue," Schleibaum said.

"He was never able to see the center lights on the runway itself because of the blowing snow," he said. "Guided by the tower, he took the first available exit off the runway."

The name of the Key Lime Air pilot hasn't been released.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, said it couldn't comment.

Honeycutt said that the snow, and piles of old snow, partially to completely obscured the ground markings, the signs and the runway lights that help guide pilots.

But Schleibaum and Honeycutt said that the pilot accepted responsibility for the error.

Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator and now an air safety consultant, said that DIA's technology fills the blind spot left by the weather.

DIA has a radar alarm system that alerts the control tower and pilots when a plane is in the wrong place.

"DIA had a piece of equipment that was a useful tool," Feith said. "All the visual cues that the pilot would have used were obscured, obliterated or blocked."

Although some aviation experts criticized Key Lime Air's safety record, Honeycutt said that his company's record is comparable with other operators flying in bad weather into rural, mountain airports.

Key Lime Air, the region's largest cargo carrier, had two fatal accidents in 2000 and 2001. Two people died in each accident.

NTSB records show that Key Lime Air had two non-fatal incidents in 2003 and a mechanical failure in 2006 at DIA and a non-injury hard landing later last year in Gillette, Wyo.

The carrier makes 25 flights a day out of DIA and makes 15,000 flights a year, Honeycutt said. About 90 percent of the flights carry cargo for UPS, DHL and banks.

Key Lime Air also carries charter passengers, but there have been no accidents on those flights, according to Honeycutt and NTSB accident records.

Regional carriers pay less than major airlines and hire pilots with less experience.

But Honeycutt said that the pilot in the recent incident at DIA had 3,190 flight hours, including 1,100 hours in the same type of plane.

"A pilot with 3,000 flight hours, including 1,000 in that plane is an experienced pilot for that kind of cargo carrier," Feith said. "You can have 50,000 hours and still not be experienced enough for some circumstances."

Feith said Key Lime Air's previous accidents, including the fatalities, weren't relevant to last week's incident at DIA.

"When you have a guy wander out onto a runway, you can't relate that to a past history of crashes," he said. "Everyone in the airline industry has a history."

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