Jet Used Wrong Runway in Kentucky Crash

Investigators are trying to understand how a Comair plane that crashed Sunday in Kentucky ended up taking off on a runway that was too short for the plane. The crash in Lexington killed 49 people. The only survivor is the co-pilot, who is in critical condition.

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Federal safety officials looking into the crash of a commuter jet in Kentucky say the pilot took off on the wrong runway.

The Comair jet crashed early yesterday morning in Lexington, killing 49 people. Only the co-pilot survived. Officials are trying to determine how the plane ended up on a runway not designed to handle commercial jets.

From Lexington, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

Comair flight 5191 to Atlanta tried to take off from Bluegrass International Airport a little after six o'clock yesterday morning, well before dawn. Instead, it crashed through an airport fence, smashed into trees and burst into flames. Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, describes the scene.

Ms. DEBBIE HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board): The debris field is about several hundred feet, extending from the end of the runway. And there are several large portions of the airplane; the tail is in one section and there are pieces of a wing in another area. It's a large debris field and it's quite scattered.

LANGFITT: The plane apparently took a wrong turn while taxiing for take off. Instead of heading down a 7,000-foot runway, it turned too soon onto a runway just half that length and designed to handle small planes like Cessnas. Airline safety experts say the Bombardier twin-engine jet needs at least 5,000 feet fully loaded. The commuter jet took off from Runway 26, the shorter one. Hersman says a flight recorder shows the crew thought they were on a longer runway - number 22.

Ms. HERSMAN: The information that we have, it's not complete. We have additional work that we need to do. We have additional tapes that we need to pull. The information that we have indicates that there was only reference to Runway 2-2.

LANGFITT: Hersman also says there were scars from the plane at the end of Runway 26. Paul Czysz is professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University. He says the scarring suggested that the plane was past the point of no return when the pilot realized he didn't have enough room to take off.

Professor PAUL CZYSZ (Professor of Aerospace Engineering, St. Louis University): And what the scraping probably were were the underside of the airplane scraping down the runway as he drug the thing up to as high an angle of attack as he could get it.

LANGFITT: Czsyz says other crashes have been caused by planes taking the wrong runway, though there are a number of safeguards to prevent such mix-ups. For one thing, a pilot can't take off until the tower tells him to.

Prof. CZYSZ: He should not have had permission to taxi and to take off. The rules say you have to taxi to the runway threshold, call the tower and tell them that's where you are, and then they give you permission to line up on the runway. They'll hold you for several seconds and say, okay, brake release.

LANGFITT: Safety officials will continue to examine the cockpit and the tower voice recordings. Czysz says that should help explain why the crew became confused.

Aviation consultant Ed Wischmeyer(ph) says investigators will also look at the crew's schedule and whether the airport's runways were well-marked.

Mr. ED WISCHMEYER (Aviation Consultant): What was the physical condition of the flight crew? Were they tired? Were they stressed? All these sorts of things that can affect human performance. The second area is the signage and markings. Were they all lit? Were all the runway and taxiway lights lit? Those kinds of things.

LANGFITT: Yesterday's crash shook this small, close-knit city in central Kentucky known for its rolling bluegrass, fast thoroughbreds and southern gentility. Among the dead was Jon Hooker, a former baseball player at the University of Kentucky who was heading off for a honeymoon with his new wife, Scarlett, whom he'd married the night before.

The crash is the nation's worst since 2001 when an American Airlines jet went down in Queens, killing 265 people.

While all signs in yesterday's crash point to a fatal wrong turn by the pilot, it may be months before investigators can say exactly what led to the mistake.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Lexington.

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