The National Transportation Safety Board hit the nail on the head when it determined that pilot error was the cause of the Comair Flight 5191 crash, aviation observers said yesterday.
"They made it abundantly clear that the flight crew, like they said a couple of times, their heads weren't in the game," said Michael Krzak, a partner with Chicago-based Clifford Law Offices. The firm is representing the families of crash victims Rebecca Adams, Fenton Dawson, Judy Rains and Randy Towles.
"They had the appropriate cues, but they didn't use them," Krzak said. "Had they used the cues, this could have been prevented."
The pilots violated not only the Federal Aviation Administration's rule against extraneous conversation in the cockpit, but also Comair's standard operating procedure during a critical time, Krzak said.
Yesterday's ruling strengthens the many legal cases filed against Comair, he said. "Comair's been out there trying to point the fingers at other people, and I think what happened today makes clear that the No. 1 cause of this tragic occurrence was what these pilots didn't do."
The NTSB also made valid observations about Christopher Damron, the air traffic controller on duty that morning, said Paul Czysz, a retired aeronautics professor at St. Louis University. Damron cleared the plane for takeoff, then turned his back to do administrative duties.
"The fact the FAA permitted that tower operator to do something else while that plane was taking off was just absolutely unconscionable," Czysz said.
NTSB board members and staff members debated whether the air traffic controller's performance of an administrative task should be listed as a contributing factor in the crash. In the end, the board voted not to include it.
"What he should have been doing was making sure where that airplane was," Czysz said. "I think it was a contributing factor."
Czysz said he understood why the NTSB might have been hesitant to list it as a contributing factor.
"They have to be careful because they can't get the FAA too mad," he said. "They're already pushing pretty hard with the runway crossing and some of the other things, so they probably backed off on that so the FAA would at least listen with an open mind."
It's a delicate balance because the FAA does not legally have to consider, much less adopt, any of the NTSB recommendations, Czysz said.
If the NTSB's recommendations are adopted, "they are going to make airport operations a lot safer," he said. "There will be less uncertainty and ambiguity about what's going on."
Judging the ruling