Crash of Flight 5191

Controller talks about sleep factor

Hours before Flight 5191 crashed, the air traffic controller on duty paced around the Blue Grass Airport tower to keep himself awake.

The two hours of “not real good” sleep and two cups of coffee were wearing off.

Typically around 3 or 4 a.m. during his overnight shift, it “seems it catches up with you, and you feel a little sleepy/drowsy. That’s when you get up and do something, move around a little bit,” the controller told federal investigators, according to documents released yesterday.

The documents finally revealed the identity of the controller: Christopher Damron, who has worked at the Lexington tower for 17 years and formerly worked in mining.

They also revealed that he originally reported that he saw Flight 5191 taxi onto Runway 22, but he changed his statement 30 minutes later to say he only saw the regional jet headed toward the runway.

Damron told investigators that he did not know the plane had taken off from the wrong runway until a union official, who had reviewed radar data, told him.

Damron “couldn’t believe it,” he said.

He said he cleared the jet for takeoff and turned around to do a traffic count. He heard the crash and turned back to see “a fireball.”

When asked how he might have prevented the crash, he said he probably could have waited to perform the traffic count.

According to the report, National Transportation Safety Board investigators say it’s hard to see whether a plane is on runway 26 or runway 22 from the tower cab. An airport parking garage also partially blocks the view on part of a taxiway, board members said.

Damron, however, said his view of the plane was never obstructed. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Just before the crash, Damron had directed two other planes to take off. He had just finished talking to a pilot when he began doing the traffic counts.

Damron was the only controller monitoring Blue Grass from midnight to 6:40 a.m. on Aug. 27, a violation of Federal Aviation Administration staffing rules.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, an employee union, has used the crash to bolster its argument that towers should always be staffed with at least two controllers.

But Damron said it might not have mattered. Still, he said it would help in case he got sick or had a heart attack.

“It’s nice knowing you have somebody there if something was to happen,” he said.

The crash has brought scrutiny to the unusual schedules that controllers work.

Damron had worked two days shifts, two evening shifts and an overnight shift that week -- a schedule that, some say, makes it difficult to establish a regular sleeping pattern.

Considering their role in ensuring safety, controllers should not work such draining schedules, said Mike Boyd, a Colorado aviation consultant who has testified to Congress about the air traffic control system.

But changing those schedules would involve hiring more controllers, Boyd said.

Putting that into context, the federal government “spares no expense to have poorly trained screeners at every airport looking for toothpaste,” Boyd said. “But to have properly staffed control towers is a second or third priority. That’s the only way of putting it.”

But Damron said he liked the schedule because it gave him a longer weekend. He disliked the lack of sleep, but “always managed to deal with it.”

The morning of the crash, “I was tired, but I felt fine. I was alert,” he said.

Union officials had tried to keep the controller’s identity a secret. They figured the public would eventually learn his name, but “we were hoping it wouldn’t happen,” said Ken Bechtold, vice president of the union’s Lexington local.

“I think he has been a little worried, but I think with a little time gone by it has gotten a little better,” Bechtold said.

Damron returned to work a little over a month ago, Bechtold said. Nobody talks about the crash.

Damron became interested in air traffic control while he was working in mining support.

“He liked that there was change every day in ATC; it was not the same thing all the time,” according to the report. “It was a fun job. He liked working the local control position because one could see outside. He wasn’t stuck in a dark room, and he could see changes in the weather.”

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