Comair Pilots Noticed Lack of Runway Lighting

More details of Comair Flight 5191's final moments are emerging. In a briefing Monday, federal officials said the flight crew noticed they were on an unlit runway, but never asked the airport's tower for an explanation. The jet crashed at a Lexington, Ky., airport, killing 49.

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Federal investigators have gathered more information about last weekend's plane crash in Kentucky. They have identified the only survivor as the first officer who was flying the plane. Forty-nine people were killed when that jet took off on the wrong runway.

Investigators also say the flight crew noticed something wrong. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on what the crews said and didn't say.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

In the final minutes before Comair flight 5191 crashed in Lexington, crewmembers remarked that the lights were out on the runway they were heading down. Despite the unusual situation - a plane taking off before dawn on a dark runway - there was no apparent contact between cockpit and tower.

Relying on the data and voice recorders recovered from the wreckage, Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, describes the plane's final moments as it reached a high speed and the pilot tried to get it into the air.

Ms. DEBBIE HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board): The airplane achieved a maximum air speed of 137 knots. During the takeoff role, the flight crew noted that the lights were out on the runway. The captain made a callout as the aircraft and the air speed reached 100 knots. He made a rotate callout as the airplane the planned rotation speed. The recorder stopped a few seconds later.

LANGFITT: The plane, a Bombardier twin-engine jet, was supposed to take off from the airport's adjacent commercial runway, which is 7,000-feet long. Instead, it tried to take off from one that is only half that length. Aviation experts say a jet that size should have at least another 1,500 feet of runway. But at last night's briefing, Hersman seemed to suggest that the plane may have still had a chance of getting into the air.

Ms. HERSMAN: The actual weight of the aircraft, according to the manifest, to the load manifest, was 49,087 pounds. Manufacturer's calculations that they need 3,539 feet in order to rotate the nose wheel at this weight.

LANGFITT: The central mystery remains why the plane turned onto the wrong runway, especially one that wasn't lit. officials say that earlier that morning two planes took off from the main runway, which was lit. Hersman says the shorter runway, known as two-six, was only for daytime use.

Ms. HERSMAN: The lights are not operational on runway two-six. They're actually out of service and it's been this way for some time. Two-and-a-half years ago, this information was published in the airport facility directory.

LANGFITT: Investigators are also looking at recent changes at the airport to see if they may have contributed to the accident. In the last week, the airport shut down the taxi route to the main runway. As a result, the entrance to the two runways is now much closer.

Randy Johnson teaches aviation safety management at Auburn. He says that, depending on what was going on in the cockpit, the pilot could've simply become confused.

Mr. RANDY JOHNSON (Teacher; Aviation Safety Management, Auburn): In that hour of the morning he would be quite easy, if one were concerned with the departure checklist and getting ready to take off - taxiing that short of a distance, one might lose the sense of where you are at that particular point.

LANGFITT: Federal officials say the sole survivor of the flight, James Polehinke, remains in critical condition at a Lexington hospital, and they haven't been able to interview him yet.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Lexington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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