The lone air-traffic controller on duty at Blue Grass Airport when Comair Flight 5191 crashed Sunday morning had slept only two hours before starting his shift at 11:30 p.m. Saturday, the chief federal investigator into the crash said last night.
Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters during a news briefing that the controller worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, then returned to work in the control tower at 11:30 p.m. Saturday. He was scheduled to go off duty at 8 a.m. Sunday.
The crash, in which 49 people died, happened at 6:07 a.m.
Hersman said that, during an interview, the controller told federal investigators that “he got approximately two hours of sleep” during the nine hours between the time he went off duty Saturday afternoon and returned to work Saturday night. The controller is a 17-year veteran whose name has not been made public.
Details of the controller’s schedule came a day after the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged that it violated its own rules by having only one air-traffic controller, instead of two, monitoring Blue Grass Airport on Sunday morning.
Earlier this week, Hersman said the lone controller on duty did not have visual contact with Flight 5191 when it took off. The controller had cleared the plane for takeoff, then turned his back to perform administrative duties.
Under federal aviation regulations, air-traffic controllers are supposed to have at least eight hours off between shifts, said Scott Zoeckler of Nicholasville, a retired controller with 35 years’ experience.
Asked about sleep requirements, Zoeckler said a controller is required only to determine whether he is alert and awake, and to notify the air traffic control manager if he thinks he cannot perform his duties.
He said he didn’t think two hours of sleep constituted a legitimate issue, and that others have worked before with that little sleep.
Asked about the matter, Hersman said investigators are reviewing all applicable regulations and requirements, and plan to look back over the Blue Grass Airport controller’s work schedule for several days before the crash to determine the possible cumulative effects of his workload.
Flight 5191 crashed after taking off from the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport. It used Runway 26, which is for smaller planes and is only 3,500 feet long, instead of Runway 22, which is 7,000 feet long.
Unable to gain altitude, the airliner hit a berm, clipped some trees, then slammed into a field and burst into flames. The only survivor of the 50 people on board, first officer James Polehinke, 44, remains in critical condition.
Since Sunday, federal investigators have been probing every aspect of the crash. But the main focus has been on the question of how the two experienced Comair pilots strayed onto the wrong runway. On Tuesday, investigators confirmed that neither of the pilots had flown into Blue Grass Airport since changes in runway lighting and marking during a repaving project this month.
According to Hersman, the controller on duty Sunday handled 14 flights before 3 a.m.; no flights from 3 to 5 a.m.; and three flights after 5 a.m., including Flight 5191.
Two flights, one by United and another by American Eagle, left during the four minutes and 37 seconds before Flight 5191 began its takeoff, both properly using Runway 22.
The air traffic controller was guiding the American Eagle flight around some inclement weather about the same time he was handling Flight 5191’s take-off, Hersman said.
She said investigators still are trying to pinpoint exactly how many different tasks the controller was performing.
Hersman, in what she said was her final media briefing in Lexington, also presented new information on the amount of runway Comair 5191 would have needed to lift its nose wheel for takeoff.
She said new calculations show the plane needed 3,744 feet to lift its nose wheel for takeoff, well beyond the 3,500 feet of asphalt on Runway 26. The previous estimate was 3,539 feet.
She said investigators are analyzing some surveillance videos giving partial views of 5191 taxiing to Runway 26, and beginning its takeoff. They also are still reviewing air-traffic control staffing and policies at Blue Grass Airport, she said, though several investigation teams have wrapped up their work in Lexington.
The remains of the jetliner will be shipped to Atlanta for storage, she said.
Investigators still plan to interview pilots who knew 5191’s two-man crew, and pilots who had flown in and out of Blue Grass Airport recently, she said. They will also interview the crews of the flights that took off just before Comair 5191.
Hersman also offered new details of the response to the crash.
She said two airport firefighting units arrived at the accident scene eight minutes after they were alerted, and took about six minutes to extinguish the fire.
She said the assistant chief of the airport fire department said that when he arrived on the scene, the fire had already burned through the top of the fuselage. Firefighters used 450 gallons of foam and 4,500 gallons water to extinguish the blaze.
Hersman said she would attend a memorial service for the 49 victims this morning and will leave Lexington this afternoon.