Pilot, Tower Agreed On Runway

UPDATE, WED, 6:00 AM: The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledges violating its own policies when it assigned only one controller to the Lexington tower.

Investigators say the lone controller turned his back for a moment, to do administrative work, and didn't see the plane heading down the wrong runway.

A Blue Grass Airport master plan had called for the 3500 foot runway, that was mistakenly used by Comair Flight 5191 Sunday, to be separated from the main runway.

Under the airport's 2005 master plan, Runway 26, off which the flight crashed will no longer intersect the longer, 7000 foot Runway 22.

The realignment would require using land that is now the crash site of Flight 5191.

Governor Fletcher, who is a pilot, said he supports the plan to move the general aviation runway and says it should be extended to 5000 feet.

Chairman Bernard Lovely of the airport board says discussions about relocating the runway focused on the potential for increasing flight traffic, not safety.

Lovely says the short runway has been in use the way it is now since 1942, and there have not been any previous accidents.

UPDATE, TUE, 10:30 AM: Investigators are using a commuter plane Tuesday, to try to recreate what two Comair pilots saw before steering their plane toward its disastrous end.

Investigators in Lexington say, all the recorded conversations between the cockpit and control tower suggest they meant to take the main runway. Instead they wound up on an older, shorter strip.

The airport's old taxi route to the main runway was replaced just a week ago, with a sharper turn that starts at the entrance to the shorter, unlit strip.

Federal regulators are trying to determine whether that played any role in the tragic mistake.

The flight's first officer was pulled from the burning wreckage. According to published reports, he's in a coma with internal injuries.

All 49 others aboard were killed.

UPDATE, TUE, 6:20 AM: The Federal Aviation Administration has added a second controller to the weekend overnight shift at Lexington Blue Grass Airport following a crash that killed 49 and critically injured the first officer.

Only one controller was in the tower on Sunday, when the CRJ 100 attempted to take off on a runway too short for it to gain enough speed to become airborne.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown declined to give a reason for the decision.

Had an air traffic controller at Lexington noticed the pilot of Comair Flight 5191 lining-up on the wrong runway, the accident might have been prevented.

Brown says two controllers are in the tower on weekdays but only one controller was scheduled for the weekend overnight shift because traffic was significantly lighter.

New Media Producer: Rachel Chambliss

UPDATE, MON, 5:30 PM: As investigators spent a second day at the wreckage of Comair flight 5191, the safety board had already answered key questions about the crash that killed 49 people.

  • Were there lights turned on in the early morning darkness on the wrong runway - the short runway, 26?
  • Lights indicating that it might be usable?

On Monday, the NTSB said the answer is no.

  • Did the controller in the tower steer the crew to the correct runway - the long one, 22?

NTSB says the cockpit voice recorder, displayed Monday in Washington, and tapes, made in the airport control tower, answer that question. The answer is yes; the instruction was correct, and the crew verified it.

Debbie Hersman, NTSB board member, confirms, "Air traffic control and the flight crew planned for takeoff from runway 22. As you know, the FDR and evidence on scene indicates the crew took off from runway 26."

  • Why go to the wrong runway?

A possible answer came Monday from the Lexington airport manager, who revealed that the taxiways, the approach roads to the runways, were reconfigured at the airport just a few days ago.

  • Did the new route to the correct runway confuse the crew of flight 5191?
  • Were the new paint stripes and signs ambiguous?

Investigators will also be looking to see if the pilots were overtired or impaired.

The sole survivor of the crash is the co-pilot. But he remains in critical condition, still unable to speak to investigators.

UPDATE, MON, 2:15 PM: Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Michael Gobb said Monday, the taxi route commercial planes take to get to the main runway at the airport was altered a week before the plane crash.

Both the old and new routes cross-over the shorter general aviation runway, where the commuter jet tried to depart early Sunday.

Charlie Monette, president of Aero-Tech flight school at the airport, said there could have been some confusion associated with that.

And, it turns out, the layout of the runways in Lexington has posed a problem for pilots before.

A letter from a pilot, filed by the government 13 years ago, says after he was cleared for takeoff, he and the control tower each realized that he was lined-up on the wrong runway.

According to a text of the letter, provided by FlightAware, a live flight-tracking Web site, the pilot suggested that the airport post warnings "to clarify multiple runway ends."

But Gobb declined to speculate about whether the taxiway change could have been a factor in the crash.

Gobb said the old taxi route was barricaded.

A spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday, the cockpit voice recorder of Comair Flight 5191 tells investigators, the airplane that crashed killing 49 people Sunday was on the wrong runway.

Debbie Hersman says the tape indicates the pilot was cleared to take-off on Blue Grass Airport's 7000 foot runway.

The pilot, instead, attempted to take off on a 3500 foot general aviation runway.

Hersman says, lights for the shorter runway were out of service.

Airport officials had said Sunday, the shorter runway was not lighted because it was supposed to be used for daylight flights only.

Hersman says a team will attempt to re-create the conditions the pilots would have faced as they ride in a truck, with the windows the same height as the airplane.

She also says there will also be an investigation to determine if any of the crew members drank alcohol or took illicit drugs.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.