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.


"I can't tell you the emotional devastation this brings upon an airline," Bornhorst said. "I cannot adequately express to you our sadness."

Bornhorst said he would not speculate on the cause of the crash, saying it could impair the investigation. He said the names of the passengers on the flight would be released after relatives were notified, although other news reports said the release would come after positive identifications through dental records.

The plane's captain, Jeff Clay, had worked for Comair since November 1999 and was familiar with the aircraft, which had its latest maintenance check on Saturday, Bornhorst said. The surviving first officer or co-pilot, James Polehinke, was hired in 2002.

"The crew had been operating the same airplane for some time now," Bornhorst said.

Mike Proctor, a flight instructor based at Blue Grass Airport and who has flown out of the airport since 1978, said he was concerned that, in the darkness and with few visual references, Comair's pilot may have been thrown off by recent changes at the airport and conflicting information.

"If there is confusion about where you are, confusion about the markings, confusion about the runway orientation . . . all of this just adds up to steamroller," Proctor said. "I'm just hoping this didn't add one more element to something that led to a catastrophe."

Resurfacing work done at the airport a week ago included shifting the main runway used by commercial aircraft. Updated airport diagrams given to pilots no longer show an old taxiway and a former part of the runway, even though they still exist in concrete, Proctor said.

A recorded airport message for pilots does, however, mention the old taxiway and advises pilots not to use it, he said. If the pilot had flown into the airport frequently in the past, he might not have fully accounted for the recent changes there, Proctor said.

"Those of us who may use our memories and familiarity with the airport will find that familiarity will get us into trouble," he said. "I'm just very concerned that this happened one week after all of these changes went into effect."

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 St. 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 onboard.

Erik Rigler, a private San Antonio-based aircraft accident investigator, said the pilot would have had a tough, split-second decision to make if he attempted to take off from a shorter runway.

"The choice is hit the brakes and thrust reverse, or commit yourself and go airborne," Rigler said. "If you see the end of the runway coming it's not a happy choice."

If the plane did not have enough time to build up speed and the pilot tried to take off, the plane might never take off or might rise momentarily before falling back to Earth, he said.

Federal investigators expect to learn more about the crash in the coming days as they review the plane's cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, which were recovered from the wreckage. "We're still determining what was going on in the cockpit," said the NTSB's Hersman.

Lexington law enforcement authorities estimated it would take a few days to retrieve all the bodies from the charred aircraft. Fayette County, Ky., Coroner Gary Ginn said emergency personnel were confronted with the awful site of a smoldering aircraft sitting in the peaceful countryside. Most of the victims' deaths were fire-related, he said.

Rescue workers observed a moment of silence and were then led in prayer by a police chaplain before carrying on with their work, Ginn said.

"It was a horrible sight to see," he said.

Staff writers Andrea Jones, Ariel Hart, Matt Kempner, Dave Hirschman, Walter Woods, Russell Grantham, Craig Schneider and Saeed Ahmed and The Associated Press and the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed to this article.

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