Crash of Flight 5191

Runway reopens two months after crash

Blue Grass Airport’s Runway 8-26, mistakenly used by Comair Flight 5191 before the plane crashed into a farm field next to the airport on Aug. 27, reopened yesterday.

The shorter runway, used by smaller general aviation planes, had been closed since the crash, which killed 49 of the 50 people aboard. It reopened at 5:30 a.m. for daytime use only by aircraft weighing less than 12,500 pounds, said Mike Gobb, executive director of the airport. A new taxiway, named A7, also opened yesterday.

Gobb said the shorter runway is critical for the safety of smaller, general aviation aircraft. He said lighter, slower planes can be blown off course by crosswinds, so the planes must use Runway 26 to fly with the wind. Strong winds blowing perpendicular to the airport’s main runway can be common in winter, experts said.

“We are also very aware that, with Runway 26 being tied to the 5191 accident, that this is a sensitive issue with the community and with the families,” Gobb said.

Comair 5191 crashed in August after pilots mistakenly turned onto Runway 26, which at 3,500 feet long is too short for commercial planes. They were supposed to use the 7,000-foot main runway, 22. The two runways intersect.

Immediately after the crash, some officials, including Gov. Ernie Fletcher, said Runway 26 should be closed permanently.

But yesterday, several pilots said they were glad the shorter runway has reopened.

Jon Zachem and Ray Garman, both pilots and former members of the Blue Grass Airport Board, said the runway is needed for safety, and it can also help ease traffic congestion at the airport. About 60 percent of the flights at Blue Grass Airport are smaller general aviation aircraft, Gobb said.

“I’m glad to see it open. I think it’s needed,” Zachem said.

There are also some businesses that rely on the use of the smaller runway and have been affected by its closing, said Gobb. For instance, he said, the plane that flies banners over University of Kentucky football games and Keeneland races had to use the Georgetown and Frankfort airports while the smaller runway was closed.

Many of the family members of the Comair crash victims and attorneys who represent them declined to comment on the opening of the runway yesterday. Others did not return phone calls.

Kevin Durkain, with Clifford Law Office in Chicago, which represents families of several crash victims, said he is glad the runway is back in operation.

“We have no concerns that it’s not safe for the aircraft it’s meant to service,” he said.

Stan Chesley, a Cincinnati attorney who is representing the family of passenger JoAnn Wright, said he has some concerns. The reopening of the shorter runway marks the last step in a four-phase improvement project that shifted the airport’s main runway about 320 feet southwest toward Parkers Mill Road and added numerous navigational aids and runway approach lighting. Construction on the runway project began in October 2003 and is to be finished in the next 90 days. All of the major projects are completed.

“I want them to make sure that the pilots understand the changes and that they understand the limitations of that runway,” Chesley said. “As long as it’s safe, all of the pilots are aware of all the warnings and all of the maps are accurate -- I guess it’s business. But I would urge them to use caution.”

Gobb said the pilots have been notified of the changes, and the diagrams of the runways are now “very close” to accurate. He said there might be some minor ground restoration projects that change the diagrams slightly, but that pilots would be notified of those.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. The pilots of Comair 5191 had out-of-date diagrams of the runways, and a tower air traffic controller had his back turned and did not see the plane take off.

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