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Questions remain on Comair jet crash

July 27, 2007|Jon Hilkevitch | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Wrapping up a baffling case of confusion in the cockpit, federal investigators were only able to speculate Thursday about what spurred two skilled airline pilots to make basic mistakes, then fail to heed warning signs that they were on the wrong runway, causing a deadly accident last summer.

What has become clear about the crash of Comair Flight 5191 is that one pilot error compounded another in the early-morning darkness Aug. 27 at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., the National Transportation Safety Board concluded at the end of an 11-month investigation.

The Comair pilots, described during Thursday's daylong hearing as distracted, disoriented and complacent, botched a simple taxiing route from the terminal, the board found. They headed onto a 3,500-foot runway -- too short for the commuter jet to get airborne -- instead of going to the airport's 7,003-foot main runway that the Atlanta-bound crew was directed to use.

But "the 'Ah ha!' moment remains elusive to us. This accident has led us into the briar patch of human behavior," said safety board member Deborah A.P. Hersman.

Forty-nine of the 50 people on board were killed when the Bombardier CRJ-100 crashed and burst into flames within a half-minute of the pilots launching down the too-short runway.

Copilot James Polehinke, 44, was critically injured. He attempted the takeoff after Capt. Jeffrey Clay, 35, taxied the plane to Runway 26, a cracked, unlit airstrip, instead of the main Runway 22, officials determined.

Other factors included the failure to pass along information to the Comair pilots about recent airfield taxiway construction. In addition, the lone air traffic controller in the airport's tower was doing paperwork rather than closely monitoring the plane after he cleared it for takeoff, the safety board said.

The probable cause of the accident was attributed to the pilots' failure to use abundant airfield cues to identify the airplane's location; failing to check and cross-check the plane's position after stopping the aircraft short of the correct runway; and engaging in unnecessary discussions during the critical preflight period.

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