The Wrong Runway; 49 on Atlanta-Bound Jet Die in Kentucky Crash

Aerial photos of the pre-dawn crash and statements by federal investigators indicate that Comair Flight 5191 used the Lexington airport's secondary, unlighted runway.


An Atlanta-bound flight took off Sunday morning from a Lexington, Ky., runway that was too short for the plane's size and weight, crashing into nearby farmland and killing all but one of the 50 people aboard.

The survivor, the flight's first officer, was rescued from the smoldering aircraft by law enforcement officials who were unable to save anyone else. He was listed in critical condition late Sunday.

Aerial photos of the pre-dawn crash and statements by federal investigators indicate that Comair Flight 5191 used the Lexington airport's secondary, unlighted runway. That would have been a critical mistake because it is about half the length of the main runway and not long enough for the 25-ton Bombardier CRJ100 commuter jet to fully lift off, according to experts.

The plane, which needs a minimum of 5,000 feet of runway to take off, instead had only 3,500 feet. It struck a fence at the end of the runway, investigators said, then hit the ground about a quarter-mile away and burst into flames.

It was not clear why the crew would have been using the shorter runway. Experts said recent construction at Lexington Blue Grass Airport and darkness may have contributed to the confusion.

The crash marked the worst domestic air accident since November 2001, when 260 died aboard an American Airlines flight that crashed in Queens, N.Y. Despite financial turmoil in the U.S. airline industry, the skies had been mostly accident-free during the past five years.

As of Sunday evening, neither Kentucky-based Comair nor its parent company, Atlanta's Delta Air Lines, had released a list of the 47 passengers who perished. The Lexington Herald-Leader compiled a partial list based on interviews with victims' families, and most of those passengers were from Kentucky. They included a newlywed Lexington couple who were married Saturday night.

Victims' families were being housed at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Lexington. Gerry van der Meer, hotel general manager, said Sunday night that about 50 family members had arrived and about 600 were expected.

Van der Meer said residents were sending flowers and sympathy cards to the hotel. "Obviously there's a lot of grieving," he said.

Chaplains at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport met with family members waiting for their loved ones who expected the flight to touch down at 7:18 a.m. The jet took off from Lexington at 6:10 a.m.

One of the chaplains, the Rev. Harold Boyce, consoled a woman whose sister was on the plane. The two sisters were planning to fly from Atlanta to catch an Alaskan cruise, he said.

"They had been planning this trip for years," Boyce said. "We had a word of prayer. She's holding up very well."

The Comair jet, which can carry up to seven tons of fuel, crashed immediately after takeoff and skidded to a halt near a thick stand of tall trees. There were eyewitness accounts of a fireball upon impact, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said at a news conference that the plane had been lined up to take off from Runway 26, which is a far shorter piece of concrete than the airport's main runway and is used for small propeller planes. The 25-ton plane should have gone down Runway 22, which is 7,003 feet long.

The shorter runway isn't meant for planes the size of the Comair craft that crashed and is supposed to be used only during daylight, said Tommy Gandolfo, who is secretary on the board of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Airport Corp., a public nonprofit that owns the airport.

Weather appeared to play no significant role in the accident. Visibility was reportedly seven miles at the time of the crash with light winds and clouds about 5,000 feet above the ground.

During an afternoon news conference in Lexington, a visibly shaken Comair President Don Bornhorst said the Delta subsidiary's main priorities were assisting relatives of the victims and cooperating with the federal investigation of the crash.

This content continues onto the next page...

We Recommend

  • Company

    Bombardier Aerospace

    Bombardier Aerospace offers 24/7 technical support for operators of Bombardier Learjet, Challenger, and Global aircraft. For Learjet technical support: (316) 946-6100 or ac.ict@aero.bombardier.com...

  • News

    49 Dead, 1 Survives Comair Crash

    Investigators were looking into whether the plane had taken off from the wrong runway and discovered too late that they did not have the length they expected.

  • Press Release

    49 Dead, Copilot Survives Comair Crash

    Investigators were looking into whether the plane had taken off from the wrong runway and discovered too late that they did not have the length they expected.

  • News

    Comair Plane Took Off From Wrong Runway, Crash Claims 49

    A 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.