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The Nation

Pilots in Kentucky crash called dark runway `weird'

The flight's cockpit recording reveals the pair chatted but didn't check the compass, or for trouble spots.

January 18, 2007|Ken Kaye and William E. Gibson | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Just before the August crash of a commuter plane that took off on the wrong runway there was some laughing, yawning and general ease in the cockpit.

Comair Capt. Jeffrey Clay and First Officer James Polehinke gossiped about kids, dogs and fellow pilots while running through checklists.

But they didn't discuss any problems they might encounter during the short taxi to their assigned runway at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky. And it wasn't until they advanced the throttles for takeoff that they noticed it was strangely dark.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a transcript Wednesday of the cockpit recording aboard Comair Flight 5191.

"[That] is weird with no lights," said Polehinke, who was at the controls.

"Yeah," Clay responded.

They allowed their CRJ-100 commuter jet to accelerate for eight seconds to more than 115 mph -- on a runway with no lights -- before Clay knew something had gone horribly wrong.

"Whoa," he blurted.

A second later, at 6:06 a.m. on Aug. 27, the sounds of impact, cockpit alarms and unintelligible exclamations could be heard. The small jet, bound for Atlanta, ran off the end of a 3,500-foot runway that was far too short, killing 49 people on board. Only Polehinke survived.

The safety board probably will take several months to determine a formal cause of the crash, but the report released Wednesday revealed that the pilots committed errors.

Notably, they failed to conduct a taxi briefing, where the pilots review any trouble spots at the airport to ensure they reach the correct runway. This was despite the airport alerting, via a radio recording, that construction could make navigating taxiways tricky.

Also, the Comair flight's pilots failed to double-check that their compass reading matched the direction of the runway. Because they were assigned to take off on the 7,000-foot Runway 22, their compass should have read about 220 degrees. Instead, they lined up on Runway 26, which has a compass reading of about 260 degrees.

However, the sole tower controller on duty that morning didn't see the plane roll onto the wrong runway because he had turned away from the window to perform an administrative duty, the report said.

Further, the pilots might have talked too much about matters nonessential to the flight, moments before the deadliest U.S. aviation disaster in five years.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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