Runway's Lack of Lights May Have Caused Confusion

It was unclear Monday just when the pilots might have realized they were on a runway too short for their plane.


The pilots of Comair Flight 5191 noticed there were no lights on the runway they were using as they took off from Blue Grass Airport Sunday morning, a National Transportation Safety Board member said Monday night, but from all indications they never tried to stop.

NTSB member Debbie Hersman also confirmed that First Officer James Polehinke was at the controls, and that the flight crew received no communication from the control tower as they headed down Runway 26, which was not the runway they should have been using. Seconds later the plane crashed, and Polehinke was the only survivor among the 50 people on board. He remains in critical condition.

And, as the investigation into the crash continued, Gov. Ernie Fletcher suggested Monday night that Blue Grass Airport permanently close the short runway mistakenly used by the flight when it crashed.

"I think it would be advantageous," the governor said, adding that he would defer the final decision to experts.

Fletcher also asked airport officials, including executive director Michael Gobb, for details about the runway, but declined to say what he found because of the ongoing investigation.

Recent changes at the airport, including the shutdown of some runway lighting and new routes for taxiing aircraft, are among the factors federal investigators are reviewing as they try to learn why Comair Flight 5191 strayed onto the wrong runway and then crashed after takeoff Sunday morning.

The plane slammed into the ground on a farm just west of the airport at about 6:07 a.m., after taking off from Runway 26, a short runway designed for light aircraft, rather than the much longer Runway 22 it should have used.

Hersman said Monday afternoon that an initial analysis of Flight 5191's cockpit voice recorder indicates that preflight procedures were normal and that the crew reported no problems. She said all contacts between the crew and air-traffic control indicated that the crew planned to take off on the airport's main Runway 22, the appropriate one, not the much shorter Runway 26.

It was unclear Monday just when the pilots might have realized they were on a runway too short for their plane. Hersman said recordings indicate the plane never stopped accelerating. There was a similar confusion of runways in 1993, but the mistake was caught before takeoff.

To find out how that happened, Hersman said, investigators will look at multiple factors, such as recent paving and improvements and any changes in lighting, runway and taxiway markings. As a part of that effort, she said, one investigative team at the airport is using an elevated truck that mimics the view from an airplane cockpit, letting them "see what the pilots saw" as they prepared to take off just after 6 a.m. Sunday.

Finding ultimate answers may take a year or more. But Vernon Grose, a former NTSB member, said the answer probably will involve more than one factor.

"The basic premise is that no accident is a single thing, it's a composite of things," said Grose, who served on the NTSB during the Reagan administration.

The one clear thing is that several factors had changed at Blue Grass Airport in recent days.

Gobb confirmed that the center lights on the airport's main runway were not operating Sunday morning, having been shut down in connection with repaving work at the airport Aug. 19-20. However, the side lights on that runway were still in operation, Gobb said.

David Katzman, a Michigan-based airline transport pilot and attorney, noted in an e-mail that Blue Grass Airport's general aviation Runway 26 - the one Flight 5191 ultimately used - has no center lights. Because the center lights on Runway 22 also were not operating, Katzman said, an important visual cue that might have helped pilots distinguish between the two runways was missing.

Katzman added, however, that pilots would have been informed of the lighting situation through what is known as a "notice to airmen." But he called the lighting change "noteworthy."

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