Dozens of lawyers and experts converged on Blue Grass Airport's runways and taxiways yesterday in search of any thread of evidence that might help determine culpability in the Comair Flight 5191 crash that killed 49 people.
A private jet with a cockpit comparable to Comair's Bombardier CRJ 1000 went down the runway at 6:30 a.m. and taxied down part of it three times in an attempt to learn what the pilot and co-pilot saw on Aug. 27 before the 6:07 a.m. crash.
Lawyers said the test confirmed what they already believed: Pilots could not have seen the end of Runway 26 -- which is 3,500 feet long and not intended for large planes -- and signage and runway markings were inadequate.
Nonetheless, it should have been "patently obvious" the pilots were on the wrong runway, Michigan lawyer David Katzman said.
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"It is virtually impossible to miss if you are alert and skillful," he said.
The inspection was intended to allow the families' lawyers and their experts to gather information for at least eight lawsuits that have been filed and others expected to be filed.
Some of them talked about airport conditions that might have contributed to the crash -- including the presence of a fence 390 feet from the end of the runway Flight 5191 used, bad signage and poor lighting.
However, airport officials struck back in a strongly worded statement criticizing the opinions of "so-called experts, who are in fact hired marketing guns for plaintiffs' attorneys."
"Some of the opinions expressed today by so-called experts fail to consider all of the information that will be available upon completion of the NTSB investigation," the statement said. "They represent a law firm's marketing strategy rather than objective expert comment."
They declined to answer specific questions, citing the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
Chicago attorney Robert Clifford, who represents the family of Rebecca Adams and other families he declined to name because they have not yet filed suit, said the deeply anchored gate posts could have been a contributing factor in the crash.
When they examine the plane's wreckage in Atlanta, his experts expect to learn that the wings were damaged by the posts, which are sunk at least 10 feet into the ground, Clifford said.
"Everybody's been wondering, 'Why couldn't these boys get up?'" Clifford said. "That may well be the reason."
He noted that the fault still rests with the pilots for accidentally taking off from Runway 26, which is half the length of 7,000-foot Runway 22. But if the gate had been placed elsewhere the crash might have been averted, Clifford said.
Katzman said that, had the pilots looked at their compass, they would have known they were on the wrong runway. He is representing the estate of Erik Harris. Runway numbers correspond with compass headings.
Some signs are small, poorly placed and confusing, but "it doesn't exonerate the pilot," he said.
Comair had agreed to provide a regional jet for the inspection, but trial lawyers balked at restrictions the company placed on its use.
Instead they used a Challenger 601-3A owned by Clifford.
The lawyers said it has the same cockpit, height and dimensions as the Bombardier jet, except it is shorter in length. Because sunrise is occurring later than it was the morning of the crash, the lighting conditions were similar to those the Comair pilots faced at 6:07 a.m. Aug. 27.
Airport police escorted two buses with 65 lawyers and experts down Runway 26 at 6:50 a.m.
At 9:30 a.m., about a dozen family members joined them to examine the runways in the light. The unusual scene included buses, planes, people, and even a man mowing the airport grass.
From just beyond the fence, a few curious horses observed the goings on.
Experts, lawyers and family members spent much of their time focused on the end of the runway and the fence that lines the perimeter of airport property.
"There is always a primary cause, and then the question becomes, 'Is there something that could have been done that breaks a series of events that's about to unfold?'" Clifford said.
The posts were bent back but are still standing.
A Colorado aviation analyst who is not involved in the litigation questioned the relevance of the lawyer's claim. He said trial lawyers are fishing for reasons to sue the airport.
"That really is a stretch," said Mike Boyd, who is primarily a business consultant but has been involved in aviation for more than 30 years. "At any U.S. airport, if an airplane runs past the end of the runway, it is going to run into something. Even at LaGuardia (in New York), if it goes off the runway it is going to hit the water. Are we going to say the water shouldn't be there?"
Experts were baffled by an NTSB report earlier this week that said the plane's three wheels were still on the ground when it left the runway, Clifford said.
It raises the question of when -- and if -- the pilots knew they were on the wrong runway, accident investigator David Gleave said. When the plane left the runway, it was "airborne but not really flying," he said.
"It is difficult to tell the end of the runway is coming up," Gleave said. "It would not be obvious. Maybe one or two seconds, you would suddenly recognize that's it, you've run out of runway. Therefore, there is no chance at that point to ... try and stagger into the air."
Gleave, the owner and chief investigator of London-based consulting firm Aviation Safety Investigation, has been retained by Lexington attorney Joe Savage and San Francisco lawyers Robert Lieff or David Fiol. They represent the family of Christina Anderson.
He said the runway's signs, markings and lighting do not meet international standards, though he acknowledged they met Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
Boyd also questioned the relevance of that issue.
"What the hell does that have to do with Lexington and Comair?" he asked.