NTSB Comair Report Tells Pilots to Double-Check Runways

Although the NTSB has not concluded its investigation, it said that the airport had appropriate runway and taxiway signs.

Dec. 13--Spurred by the Comair Flight 5191 crash, the National Transportation Safety Board yesterday recommended that the federal government order commercial airlines to require pilots to cross-check their instruments to ensure they're taking off from the correct runway.

The NTSB, which is investigating the Aug. 27 accident, also recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require airlines with scheduled commercial service to provide specific guidance to pilots for runway lighting requirements at night.

The recommendations are the first the NTSB has made since the crash at Blue Grass Airport that killed 49 people. The Comair pilots took off at 6 a.m. from an unlit general aviation runway that was half as long as the lighted, recently repaved 7,000-foot runway from which they were supposed to depart. The plane crashed into trees on a nearby farm and burned. Only the first officer survived.

Although the NTSB has not concluded its investigation, it said that the airport had appropriate runway and taxiway signs. The NTSB's nine-page report focuses mainly on Comair, the pilots and the FAA.

The report says the Comair 5191 pilots stopped near the end of Runway 26 for 45 seconds before requesting clearance for takeoff. According to cockpit recordings, the pilots didn't sound confused, but they also didn't confirm their position on the runway. The pilots noticed the lack of lights on the short runway, but continued the takeoff.

The first statements acknowledging their mistake came after they reached their "V1" speed, the "commit speed" at which a pilot must take off because he doesn't have enough runway left to stop. In essence, said aviation expert Paul Czysz, that means by the time the pilots realized they were on the wrong runway, it was too late. Marks on the ground show that the plane's nose wheel was still on the ground at the end of the runway.

In the report to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, the NTSB recommended "requiring all crew members on the flight deck to positively confirm and cross-check the airplane's location at the assigned departure runway before crossing the hold-short line for takeoff."

The NTSB made a similar recommendation in 1989 after a plane took off from the wrong runway at Hobby Airport in Houston. But, rather than issuing a mandate to airlines, the FAA advised them to establish procedures for double checking runways.

At the time, the NTSB considered the FAA's response acceptable. But yesterday the board questioned that decision.

Comair did not have such operating procedures, the NTSB said.

"... (T)he FAA must move beyond providing advisory information to operators and become more aggressive in effecting change in this area," the board wrote.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said last night that the agency has 90 days to respond to the NTSB's recommendations. The FAA is not required to enact them, but it follows such recommendations 90 percent of the time, she said.

Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Mike Gobb was traveling early last night and not immediately available. Airport spokesman Brian Ellestad said only that airport officials "are glad that the investigation is moving forward and are looking forward to the next step in the process."

Czysz, a retired aeronautics professor at St. Louis University, says the FAA has been reluctant to take any steps that might slow flight operations and therefore anger passengers. Czysz says that explains the FAA's response in 1989.

He noted that the FAA has a dual responsibility of regulating air operation and encouraging passenger traffic.

"They have to make sure the flights are safe. But anything that takes 10 seconds to delay the flight they look at with a jaundiced eye" for fear of upsetting impatient passengers, he said. "I just hope the FAA will listen to them for the 54th time. ... This happens often enough that it should be stopped."

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