NTSB looks for answers in crash of Comair CRJ

 - September 28, 2006, 6:41 AM

When the nation’s news media rounded up the pundits to comment on the possible causes of the August 27 crash of Comair Flight 5191, many could conjure reasonable speculation about why the 50-seat Bombardier CRJ100 jet lined up on Lexington Blue Grass Airport’s 3,500-foot Runway 26 rather than the main, 7,000-foot, Runway 22. But when the question of why a pair of relatively experienced pilots would barrel down a completely unlit runway into a virtual black void apparently without looking at so much as their compass, all those experts seemed at a loss.

Now, a month into the investigation, a number of possible aggravating factors have surfaced, none of which alone could excuse the seemingly incomprehensible actions of the pilots that early morning but one of which just might have raised enough of a red flag or safety redundancy to have broken the chain of events that led to the tragedy. Of course, most of the attention has turned to ATC since the revelation that the airport had violated FAA policy by having only one controller on duty that morning. Once the NTSB issues its next update, perhaps we’ll all turn to another aspect of the investigation altogether.

According to a November 2005 agency memo, Blue Grass Airport needs one controller to monitor air traffic on radar and another to perform other tower functions, such as communicating with taxiing aircraft. An NTSB official said the tower controller on duty the morning of August 27 cleared the CRJ for takeoff and turned his back to do paperwork. But according to the FAA, whether or not a second controller would have noticed the airplane lining up on the wrong runway matters not, at least in a legal sense.

“Had there been a second controller present on Sunday, that controller would have been responsible for separating airborne traffic with radar, not aircraft on the airport’s runways,” said the FAA in a statement.

Nevertheless, the agency’s legal arguments will not dilute the air traffic controllers union’s belief that staffing shortages have led to fatigue and safety compromises. In fact, the controller on duty had gotten just two hours of sleep during his previous nine-hour rest period. The controller, whose name the FAA has refused to release, told investigators he had worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 26, before reporting again for work at 11:30 p.m. the same day. The crash happened at 6:07 a.m., exactly six hours, 37 minutes later. Of the 47 passengers and three crewmembers, only the copilot survived, with potentially crippling injuries.

Of course, fatigue more often than not occupies a prominent position on the list of suspected contributors to an accident when lack of evidence of mechanical failure exists, particularly when the crew exhibits possible signs of inattentiveness. In this case, after checking in at 5:15 a.m. and picking up their paperwork, the pilots boarded the wrong airplane and didn’t recognize their mistake until a ramp worker alerted them after they started its APU.

Once they made their way to the correct airplane, the crew boarded their passengers and began to taxi just about on time. The flight’s captain, Jeffrey Clay, taxied the CRJ100 to the wrong runway, then handed over the controls to copilot James Polehinke, who proceeded down Runway 26, after which the airplane ran off into the grass at the end of the runway, hit a berm, clipped the airport’s perimeter fence and severed treetops before crashing and burning in a field.

A week before the crash, a repaving project prompted Blue Grass Airport to re-route the taxiway, requiring airplanes to cross the threshold of Runway 26 to get to Runway 22. Instead, the pilots simply turned left directly onto a completely unlit Runway 26, applied power and rolled for takeoff. The crew had not flown in Lexington since the airport changed the taxiway approach. Perhaps adding to the pilots’ confusion, the airport also had removed lights from the center of the long runway for the repaving work, as indicated in an FAA notam. As they began their takeoff, the pilots in fact noted the lack of lighting on Runway 26.

Immediately pundits began to wonder whether the pilots might have believed that all the lights– even the edge lighting–on the main runway were out. But to arrive at such a conclusion and, therefore, believe it permissible to take off in almost complete darkness would raise more questions of a disastrous lapse in judgment.

Although at press time the NTSB had yet to report the results of its investigation into how the two pilots had spent the 72 hours before the crash, Comair reported that both pilots arrived in Lexington the day before–the flight’s copilot and only survivor, Polehinke, at 2 a.m., and its captain, Jeffrey Clay, at 3:30 p.m., leaving each with plenty of time to sleep before the following day’s 6 a.m. flight.

It appears neither one of the pilots was pulling so-called “stand-up overnight” duty, or schedules that typically begin in the late evening hours and involve a one-or two-leg flight from a hub city to an outlying destination where the crew remains on duty continuously throughout the night until returning to the hub city, sometimes at first light. Nevertheless, the NTSB wants to know not how much rest time the pilots received, but how much sleep–not just the night before, but how much cumulative sleep over the previous three days.

As expected, lawsuits have begun to mount, claiming negligence on the part of Comair, the pilots, the airport, the FAA and others. One suit claims that the pilots committed 12 separate errors, including trying to take off on the unlit runway. The federal lawsuit filed by Cincinnati lawyer Stan Chesley also seeks punitive damages, typically awarded to punish reckless or intentional conduct.

Now, family members that have begun questioning coroners’ reports that indicate the victims died of blunt impact rather than in the ensuing inferno have begun asking for second autopsies from private forensic pathologists to determine the level and duration of pain and suffering for damages assessments. A county circuit judge has granted a temporary restraining order to prevent Blue Grass Airport from continuing any construction to preserve evidence in the crash. The judge had set a date of September 27 to allow plaintiffs’ experts to inspect the airport.

The crash’s lone survivor, at one point near death, has emerged from critical condition but still faces a series of operations to repair multiple orthopedic injuries. Meanwhile, the airline for which he still technically works faces its own battle for survival, as its pilots suspended talks for a renegotiated contract last month after management refused to shave any of the $17.3 million that ALPA agreed to give back earlier this year, but only on the condition that Comair’s flight attendants agreed to $8.9 million of their own cuts. Once Comair failed to reach terms with the flight attendants, the pilot concessions fell off the table, as did the $1 million in cuts negotiated on behalf of its mechanics. Comair has until October 2 to bid on a sizeable piece of flying that parent company Delta has threatened to outsource to competing regional airlines.