The pilots of Comair Flight 5191 chatted about kids, dogs and careers as they prepared to take off, never noting that they were on the wrong runway, according to new documents released yesterday by federal investigators.
Three minutes before they took off on a runway too short for the regional jet carrying 47 passengers, Captain Jeffrey Clay and First Officer James Polehinke were talking about other pilots’ job changes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s transcript of the cockpit voice recorder.
They had one more chance that could have saved 49 lives but missed it, according to the transcript and other reports. As the plane sped down Runway 26 with Polehinke at the controls, he mentioned the lack of lights: “Dat is weird with no lights.” Clay, who had positioned the plane on the runway, responded, “Yeah.”
According to calculations by NTSB investigators, the pilots still might have been able to stop; they were about halfway to the point beyond which the plane could not have aborted the takeoff without going off the end of the runway. But the moment -- about 5 seconds, according to Paul Czysz, a professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University -- passed.
The reports about the Aug. 27 crash at Blue Grass Airport describe haunting moments from the hours and seconds before the pilots directed the plane onto the wrong runway and crashed into a field. It was the worst aviation disaster in the United States since 2001, the worst ever in Lexington.
‘Sterile cockpit rule’
Federal aviation regulations prohibit any non-essential conversation in the cockpit during taxi, specifically “any activity during a critical phase of flight which could distract any flight crew member from the performance of his or her duties.”
Several times, while the pilots were running through checklists, but before they pushed back from the airport gate, Clay and Polehinke discussed such things as job prospects, their children and dogs.
“They seem to be talking about everything but what they’re supposed to be doing,” Czysz said.
As they taxied to the runway, the superfluous conversation didn’t stop. Polehinke told Clay about three pilots he knew who had tried to get a job with another airline.
Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said the conversations before the plane left the gate are a gray area, but those afterward violate company policy. She said it would be premature to draw any conclusions on what role that might have played in the crash that killed 47 passengers, pilot Clay and a flight attendant. Polehinke, the sole survivor, suffered massive injuries. Ida Askew, his wife, told the NTSB that he doesn’t remember anything about the crash.
“These were good people and experienced pilots. That’s just another reason why this is a terrible tragedy,” Marx said.
The cockpit conversations about salaries and sick children could have distracted the pilots, Czysz said. They should have seen that their plane was pointed in the wrong direction, when the tower instructed them to go in the direction of the runway. “It doesn’t click that they’re on the wrong runway, because they should have looked at their compass,” he said.
An attorney who has been involved in multiple cases involving violations of the “sterile cockpit rule” said such conversations are common and a big problem in the aviation industry. But what happened in the Lexington crash stands out.
“It’s hard to find a grosser set of pilot errors. We only have a few minutes that count,” said David Rapoport of Chicago, who is not involved in any of the lawsuits filed against Comair and others over Flight 5191.
David Katzman, a Michigan attorney who represents one family suing over the crash, said the transcripts show many things to be “highly problematic.” “The flight crew appears to have been terribly, terribly remiss in conducting their duties that day,” Katzman said.
There are other things in the transcript that could indicate confusion or inattention. Polehinke yawns as he goes through the checks. At one point, he radios the air traffic control tower and uses the wrong flight number for the plane. At another point, Polehinke gets the runway wrong but Clay corrects him.
“He said what runway? One of ‘em. ... two four,” Polehinke said.
“It’s two two,” Clay said. Polehinke then mentions that he noticed when he’d flown in that “lights are out all over the place.” The pilots were supposed to take off from Runway 22, the airport’s main 7,000-foot runway. Ultimately, they would take off from Runway 26, a general aviation runway of 3,500 feet. The runways are designated by their compass headings.
Later, Polehinke started a check that had already been done. “Hey man, we already did that one,” Clay said. The pilots laughed.
‘One of those days’
The two started their morning by getting onto the wrong airplane. As they changed planes, Clay remarked, “It was going to be one of those days, but, oh well, what are you going to do,” according to an interview with another Comair employee.
Other documents detail what the pilots did during the 72 hours before the crash. Both checked into a Lexington hotel the afternoon before the fatal flight.
Clay had dinner with his wife and two children, who came down from Covington. He last spoke with his wife about 9:30 p.m. Polehinke bought take-out chicken fingers and two bottles of beer at the hotel just after 6:30 p.m., also a violation of Comair policy.
Comair spokeswoman Marx said that company policy prohibits any alcohol within 12 hours of a flight but she noted that the NTSB found no alcohol in either Clay or Polehinke after the crash.
Polehinke’s lawyer, Bruce Brandon of Greensboro, N.C., declined to comment about the information released yesterday. Amy Clay, Jeff Clay’s wife, did not return phone calls. Blue Grass Airport released a statement, commending the NTSB’s investigation so far and saying that it planned to continue to work with the NTSB and looked forward to its final report.
So far, the NTSB has made two recommendations as a result of the August crash. In December, it recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require commercial airlines to have pilots cross-check their instruments to ensure they’re taking off from the correct runway. The NTSB also recommended that the FAA require airlines with scheduled commercial service to provide specific guidance to pilots for runway lighting requirements at night.
Capt. Terry McVenes, executive air safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, said yesterday’s release of information pointed to the need to give pilots better information. “ALPA has long stressed the need to provide pilots better information, directly in the cockpit, on aircraft position,” he said.
For family members of victims, yesterday’s release of information brought mixed emotions.
Lois Turner, widow of Larry Turner, 51, who was a University of Kentucky associate dean, said she hopes that the details will help prevent other accidents.
“It is important to find out the facts and to find out what happened to help prevent this from ever happening again so other families won’t have to go through the pain that we’ve been through,” she said.
Frances McElravy, the mother of Steve McElravy, found the information disheartening.
“The whole thing is scary. The whole situation shouldn’t have happened,” she said.
For Beth Bruner of Pulaski County, the information can’t change what happened. “My family is grieving so hard,” said Bruner, whose sister, Scarlett Parsley Hooker, died in the crash. “My parents will never be the same. It doesn’t matter what caused it.”