In the next two to three weeks, Blue Grass Airport will demolish and rebuild part of the taxiway that has been the center of attention since the pilots of Comair Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway and crashed.
Airport officials say the construction was planned before the Aug. 27 crash that killed 49 people.
The project will build a new taxiway connection to the airport’s main 7,000-foot runway (known as Runway 22) and demolish the short taxiway connection that Flight 5191 should have used.
The construction -- the last part of a $35 million runway safety area project -- will also demolish the old taxiway connection to Runway 22 that was closed the week before the crash when the main runway was shifted to the southwest and repaved.
During the construction, Runway 26, the shorter, general aviation strip that was mistakenly used by Flight 5191, will remain closed. That should be for about 90 days. The 3,500-foot runway has been closed since the crash.
The new connection is needed to line up the taxiway with the relocated end of Runway 22, said Michael Gobb, executive director of Blue Grass Airport. Currently, pilots have to back up a short distance to get into position when they move onto the runway, he said.
Pilots will be notified about the taxiway construction via “Notices to Airmen,” or NOTAM, which are issued locally at the air traffic control tower as well as “nationwide so whenever anybody files a flight plan coming into Lexington they’ll be notified,” Gobb said.
“A NOTAM makes sure it gets out to all pilots and the control tower,” Gobb said.
Airline flight crews receive such information before they get to the airplane, Gobb said. “That’s part of their flight planning process.”
Larger safety areas sought
The runway changes at Blue Grass in recent years have been made because the Federal Aviation Administration had long pushed the airport to increase the safety areas on either end of its main runway.
The safety area helps slow down a plane that has problems stopping.
Before Runway 22 was shifted last month, there was a 135-foot safety area at the end of the runway near Versailles Road and Man o’ War Boulevard, and a 90-foot long length at the end along Parkers Mill Road.
After nearly a decade of community debate over the best solution, the airport and FAA agreed to shift the runway 325 feet to the southwest in order to create a 600-foot safety area on each end. That shift took place when the runway was repaved in August.
Moving the runway cut off the normal route that taxiing planes had used to reach it. That old route involved making a sharp turn onto a connector at the end of the taxiway onto the end of Runway 22. Because of the runway shift, planes have been using a somewhat different route, executing a left-hand turn onto a connector at an earlier point on the taxiway.
The pilots of Flight 5191 took a sharp left turn before that point, which put them on the shorter Runway 26. The plane hit a fence, an earthen berm and a stand of trees before crashing and bursting into flames as it attempted to take off from that runway.
Both co-pilot James Polehinke -- the lone survivor of the crash -- and pilot Jeffrey Clay had flown out of Blue Grass Airport before, but neither had done so since the changes were made.
Stan Chesley, a lawyer for the family of JoAnn Wright, who was killed in the crash, said the change in the route to the main runway may have been confusing to pilots.
Other pilots he has talked to knew work was in progress, but there was a change every day, Chesley said. “The entire construction and operation and lack of warning to pilots created a disaster in and of itself.”
Pilots had been informed of the changes in taxiway routing through NOTAMs. There is also an automated radio system that pilots can tune to for such information.
Gobb said he couldn’t comment on whether the taxiway configuration after the repaving had an impact in the crash because it is part of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
But, Gobb said, with the exception of the taxiway connector that was closed after the repaving, the current taxiway configuration at Blue Grass has been in place since 1980.
“One of the options was closed and not available, leaving instead two options for the pilot, one a lighted taxiway and one an unlit runway,” Gobb said.
Flight 5191 used the unlit, smaller runway and never turned onto the main runway.
The taxiway reconstruction should begin in the next 15 to 20 days, Gobb said. The project also includes installing blue taxiway lights on the new connection.
The FAA approved the phases for the runway work, so it was aware that the new taxiway connector would be constructed after the runway was shifted, Gobb said.
Runway 26 wasn’t closed immediately after the repaving in August because the contractor wasn’t ready to begin work yet on the taxiway, Gobb said.
The new taxiway connector wasn’t constructed before shifting the runway because it wasn’t needed yet, Gobb said. The airport was trying “to maximize the operational efficiency of that runway and to minimize closures.”
Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, confirmed that the agency signed off on the plan for phasing construction at the airport.
Randy Reinhardt, a semi-retired aviation attorney and pilot from Lexington, said he agrees with the airport’s decision to keep Runway 26 open until the contractor was ready to begin work on the taxiway.
“They’re going to have to close it for construction, but I see no purpose for closing it any other time,” Reinhardt said.
Runway 26 gets more use in the summer because of the way the winds blow in Kentucky, Reinhardt said. Small planes have to land on Runway 26 when the winds pick up from the west, he said.
Reinhardt said it would not have made sense for the airport to construct the new taxiway connection before shifting the runway.
“Why build a connection that goes nowhere?” he said. “It would have gone to the runway, but three connecting taxiways may have been more confusing than two.”
THE TRAGEDY OF flIGHT 5191