Reconstructing a takeoff: How could this have happened?

June 14, 2007 

The runway repaving project at Blue Grass Airport cut off the normal route that taxiing planes used to take off from Runway 22, the long runway that points to the southwest.

That old route involved making a sharp turn at the end of the taxiway. With that section cut off at 6 a.m. Sunday, Comair Flight 5191 made a sharp left turn -- too sharp.

That turn sent the plane onto shorter Runway 26 instead of across to the correct, longer runway. As soon as it had taxied through that turn, Flight 5191 began accelerating down Runway 26, which faced west. It ran out of asphalt before its nose was completely off the ground, hit a berm, clipped several trees and crashed.

At 6:15 Friday morning, a Herald-Leader reporter and photographer taxied onto the Blue Grass Airport runway to get a sense of the conditions that might have been experienced in the cockpit a week before.

By then, some conditions had changed. Among them, a giant, lighted X had been placed on either end of the shorter runway so the mistake of 5191 wouldn't be repeated.

The pilots: What they see

The roll to the runway in the pre-dawn darkness can look, at first glance, like a blur of lights and pavement. Comair Flight 5191 would have passed by the west side of Blue Grass Airport heading toward the intersection of Man o' War Boulevard and Versailles Road. At the left turn to go to the runways, the plane still was moving on a faded gray pavement, a contrast to the dark black asphalt of the newly repaved Runway 22. No lights illuminated Runway 26. It looked like a darkened side street compared with Runway 22. But the two runways cross each other. Lights that are spaced evenly along the edges of Runway 22 extend in both directions off Runway 26 like wings. And the end of Runway 26 couldn't be seen from that point -- at least by a small plane. It's unclear how far the Comair 5191 pilots could have seen down that runway. The pilots: What they hear

Pilots and the air traffic controller have several brief exchanges before a plane is cleared for takeoff.

• First, the pilots listen to a string of messages that are recorded by the controller and updated throughout the day. The messages include details such as weather reports, wind speeds, temperatures and visibility.

• The recording also includes airport updates, called "notices to airmen." For instance, on Friday, the notices warned: "Runway 4 approach lighting system out of service ... Runway 4 touchdown lights out of service ... Runway 4 distance remaining signs out of service ... Runway 8-26 closed." Runway 8-26 -- so named because one end faces 8 degrees on the compass and the other end faces 26 degrees -- is the short runway used by Comair 5191. The big runway is 4-22. Pilots should check their compass to confirm they're on the correct runway. Cockpit and tower: What they say

• When the plane is ready to pull away from the gate, the pilot contacts the air traffic controller to advise him of the plane and its destination, as well as that the crew is aware of the updated messages.

• The controller acknowledges the aircraft and instructs the pilot where to taxi the plane to its runway.

• The pilot confirms.

• As the plane taxis toward the assigned runway, the pilot requests clearance for takeoff on that runway.

• The air traffic controller, after checking the radar to make sure no other planes are in the way, grants clearance.

At the end of the runway comes a berm a fence and a clump of trees.

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