Federal authorities confirmed last night that preliminary information from a downed Comair jet showed the pilot took off from the wrong runway, causing the plane to crash near Blue Grass Airport yesterday.
Debbie Hersman, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said yesterday that "ground scars," or marks made by the plane as it crashed, and information from the cockpit voice recorder indicated that Delta Comair Flight 5191, which crashed shortly after 6 a.m. yesterday, took off on Runway 26, which is for use by smaller aircraft.
Hersman said yesterday that information obtained by the NTSB indicated that the pilot was cleared to take off on Runway 22, which is 7,000 feet long and designed for passenger jets. Runway 26 is only 3,500 feet long
Information obtained by the NTSB so far gave "reference to 22" alone, Hersman said.
Hersman said yesterday that the investigation was still in its early stages and that the investigative teams will be breaking up into smaller groups to analyze all aspects of this accident, one of the largest aviation accidents in Kentucky history. The plane's voice and data recorders were recovered and sent to Washington, D.C., yesterday.
Investigators were able to pull more than 32 minutes of voice recording from the cockpit recorder and were also able to mine information from the flight data recorder, which tracks information about the plane's movements.
The investigation is likely to focus on how and why the pilot took the wrong runway.
Blue Grass Airport recently went through a major repaving project, including all of runway 22 and portions of runway 26 where 22 and 26 intersect. Some pilots familiar with the airport also questioned whether there were enough air traffic controllers in the tower at 6 a.m.
Others raised questions about whether the plane's crew had enough sleep before take-off. The crew spent Saturday night in Lexington, said a spokeswoman from Comair. But she declined to say when crew members arrived or disclose the time of their last flight, saying that information was part of the federal investigation.
Airport officials said yesterday that they did not think that the new construction played a part in yesterday's accident. Blue Grass Airport's control tower was manned and in operation when the crash occurred at 6:07 a.m., said Mike Gobb, the airport's executive director.
Gobb said he didn't know how many people were on duty in the tower, but a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said that only one controller normally would be working at that time of day.
It was still relatively dark when the crash occurred.
Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, said the control tower was not required to have more staffing. She said there are virtually no flights from 3:30 to 5:30 a.m., and typically only 13 between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. "Traffic is extremely light," she said.
Gobb declined to speculate whether the tower would have been able to quickly determine that the plane was using the wrong runway. But many pilots said yesterday that one person in the tower might have been too busy to notice the problem.
David Katzman, airline transport pilot and an attorney in Michigan, said the control tower should have also had a ground controller guiding the airplanes.
"That single controller could be doing a lot of things," said Katzman, who has flown his personal jet into Blue Grass Airport. "... If they had one controller, they are short one."
Bergen said yesterday it will probably be several weeks before she can release the air traffic control recordings, which will provide answers to many lingering questions.
Gobb said the taxiing patterns were changed as a result of the new safety areas that Blue Grass Airport installed at both ends of the main runway.
One key change involved the closure of a small section of "Taxiway Alpha" that large planes previously had used to reach the end of the main runway nearest Versailles Road for takeoff. That taxiway section was closed Aug. 20, Gobb said. With the closure, planes were using a somewhat different route, executing a left-hand turn from another point on Taxiway Alpha to reach the main runway.
But, according to Gobb, the airport has a number of systems in place to direct pilots to the proper runways. He said these include blue and white lights which designate taxiways and active runways, signs, numbers and pavement markings.
Gobb also said pilots had been informed of the recent changes in taxiway routing at Blue Grass Airport. In addition, there is an automated radio system that pilots can tune to get such information.
Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University, said that, based on pictures he had seen, the Comair jet would have been unable to gain enough altitude to clear the trees taking off from the 3,500-foot runway, and would have needed at least 5,200 feet to take off properly. Czysz said the plane would have just been lifting off the ground when the runway ended.
"Once he crossed the main runway and saw what the heck was going on, he probably knew he didn't have enough distance to stop," Czysz said. "The only thing you can do then is try to take off.
"Sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one," Czysz added. "It doesn't happen very often."
Pilots said yesterday that instruments should have shown the pilot that he was on the wrong runway. Names for runways are derived from compass indicators. When the plane prepared for takeoff from runway 26, its indicator would have read 260 degrees, 40 degrees off the correct course of runway 22.
Checking that compass indicator is the last thing a pilot does before takeoff, said Katzman, the lawyer from Michigan.
Once the pilots realized they were on the runway, it was probably too late for them to do anything, Katzman said. They had two options: slide off the runway or take to the air at too slow a speed.
"It's not a runway anybody ever thinks this airplane is going to be on," Katzman said.
Dr. Ray Garman, a student pilot and a former airport board member, noted that the numbers on the runways are large.
"It would be very hard to confuse them," Garman said.
According to FlightAware, an aviation Web site, this is not the first time a pilot has gotten confused at Blue Grass Airport. In 1993, an airline pilot reported that he almost took off from Runway 26 but the tower caught the error and canceled the takeoff. In an entry on FlightAware's Web site the pilot reported "poor visibility" and a "confusing runway intersection."
Staff Writers Cassondra Kirby and Jennifer Hewlett contributed to this story.