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Federal investigators are looking into whether recent changes at the airport in Lexington, Kentucky, may have contributed to the weekend crash that killed 49 people. The pilot took a wrong turn and tried to take off on a runway that was too short. Officials said lights on that runway weren't working and that the airport had recently closed a taxi route leading to the runway.
From Lexington, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
When ComAir Flight 5191 tried to take off from Bluegrass International Airport before dawn Sunday, federal investigators say it did so from a runway where the lights were out of service. Aviation experts say taking off from a dark runway is not unheard of, but Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, says finding out why it happened Sunday is central to their investigation.
Ms. DEBBIE HERSMAN (National Transportation Safety Board): We are seeking to determine exactly what the status of those lights are, what their function was, who had access to them, and all of those questions are what our investigators are trying to find the answers to today.
LANGFITT: There have been other recent changes to the airport, as well. The main runway had been resurfaced, and a week before the crash, the airport apparently changed the taxi route to the main runway. Hersman says officials will be examining so-called NOTAMs, the change notices airports issue to airline companies.
Ms. HERSMAN: We're looking into reports about any work that had been done at the airport, what might have been approved, what might have been proposed and what might have been completed. There were also so NOTAMs that have been issued, and we will be pulling all of those, anything that might have changed configuration or appearances at the airport.
LANGFITT: The plane, a Bombardier twin-engine regional jet, crashed when the pilot tried to take off from a runway that was designed to handle small planes, like Beechcrafts. Safety experts say the runway was at least 1,500 feet too short for a loaded Bombardier. James Simmons teaches aviation aerospace science at Metropolitan State College in Denver. He says runway changes and airport construction can easily lead to accidents.
Mr. JAMES SIMMONS (Metropolitan State College, Denver): There's all kinds of situations where use of a different runway or repaving a runway or temporarily closing a runway - any number of circumstances like that result in confusion and mistakes. And we've had some big ones where airliners, large airliners, have tried to land or take off on runways that are closed, for example, for construction or repair, and the flight crew either had that information and didn't notice it, or they didn't have the information in front of them at all.
LANGFITT: Investigators are now poring over 32 minutes of cockpit voice data as well as the flight data recorder to figure out what the tower and the pilot said to each other before the tragic mistake. Simmons says that good tower controllers will visually confirm whether a plane is on the right runway before okaying it for takeoff.
Mr. SIMMONS: But it is perfectly possible to give taxi instructions on the ground in circumstances where the controller cannot see the airplanes. Some airports are so large, where there are hanger buildings, or the slope of the terrain is such that controllers cannot see the ends of runways.
LANGFITT: Tomorrow morning the National Transportation Safety Board will dispatch investigators to the tower and vehicles about the same height as the plane's cockpit to simulate conditions just before Sunday's crash. Safety Board member Debbie Hersman says they want to try to determine what the pilot saw in the minutes before he made his fatal error.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Lexington.
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