The pilot and the co-pilot of deadly Comair Flight 5191 had not been drinking or using illicit drugs, according to federal investigators searching for the cause of the Aug. 27 crash that killed 49 people in Lexington.
Co-pilot James Polehinke, who was piloting the plane during takeoff, did have “a low level” of the over-the-counter decongestant pseudoephedrine in his blood, according to an update issued yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board. Polehinke was the only survivor of the crash; he is listed in serious condition at the University of Kentucky Hospital, where his severely injured left leg was amputated Sept. 14.
When Flight 5191 ran out of space on Runway 26, which was too short for the takeoff, markings on the ground showed that “all three landing gear were on the ground,” the update said.
The NTSB did not say whether the pseudoephedrine could have affected Polehinke’s performance. Side effects of the decongestant can include nervousness, dizziness, drowsiness and increased blood pressure. And packages warn users to use caution when driving or operating machinery.
“We’re not in a position to analyze the amount he had in his system at this point,” said NTSB spokesman Terry Williams.
The NTSB said the pilots’ actions, as well as the airport taxiway, runway markings, air traffic controller’s workload, and control tower staffing are being evaluated as possible contributors to the accident. Completed reports will be released in the next several months, the update said.
According to the update:
The Atlanta-bound jet crashed about 6:07 a.m. on takeoff from Blue Grass Airport. It was the third flight within 20 minutes. The two previous flights had taken off without incident from Runway 22. Comair 5191 was also cleared to taxi to that runway, but pilot Jeffrey Clay instead stopped at Runway 26, which was too short.
The plane stopped for about 45 seconds near the end of Runway 26, then was cleared for takeoff. In about 36 seconds the plane taxied onto the runway, turned and powered up to take off. The flight data recorder, which was recovered along with the cockpit voice recorder, indicated the plane took about 32 seconds to reach the end of the runway at about 137 knots and hit the ground 4 seconds later, with all three landing gear down.
The air traffic controller, who has not been named, turned away from the window to perform a traffic count. “He did not witness the accident, but heard the crash, turned around and saw fire, and immediately activated the emergency response,” according to the report.
According to Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown, the controller picked up a “crash phone,” a direct line from the tower to the airport’s on-field fire house, which rings automatically. “There was a conversation,” Brown said.
Edited recordings released by Lexington police and fire dispatchers do not include the call. Audio of the airport’s fire department has not been made public. “It’s part of the investigation and we haven’t released the tapes yet,” Brown said yesterday.
Generally, when the emergency response is activated, the airport’s dispatch center and airport firehouse are alerted, said Amy Caudill, a spokeswoman for Blue Grass Airport. The airport dispatch center would then notify Lexington police and fire, she said.
The FAA has said there should have been two controllers on duty at the time, but that the other controller would have been monitoring radar and not looking out the window.
Blue Grass Airport has been undergoing runway renovations since 2004 to upgrade Runway 22, the main runway. The runway had been repaved days before. Investigators have examined runway signs as well as information on the layout that was available to pilots. The runway’s center lights were not working and the maps in use at the time apparently were incorrect.
The families of several victims have sued Comair and its parent, Delta. The airport is apparently protected from litigation. A 1985 ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals found that the airport has sovereign immunity because its governing board is a unit of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.
The update confirmed no problems were noted with the engines or any other airplane system or structure. The wreckage of the plane, which was destroyed by fire, has been moved to storage in Georgia.
Investigators have interviewed ramp personnel, flight instructors, pilots who had flown with the crew of Comair Flight 5191, Comair’s director of corporate safety and the FAA personnel who oversaw Comair’s certification. According to the update, the investigators are reviewing documents relevant to the flight, crew, plane and “oversight of the airline.”
THE TRAGEDY OF FLIGHT 5191