FAA Says KY Tower Was Understaffed

There should have been two controllers on duty in the Lexington, Ky., control tower instead of just one, on the morning that a Comair Bombardier CRJ-100 commuter jet crashed after trying to take off from the wrong runway, the FAA said on Tuesday.

Of the 50 people on board the Comair flight, 49 were killed. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the FAA has required two controllers in all towers on all shifts since November 2005, after a near-collision of two aircraft near Raleigh-Durham Airport in North Carolina. The Lexington tower will now have at least two controllers at all times, one on radar and one on the tower position. Early Sunday morning, the controller on duty, who had 17 years of experience, cleared the Comair flight for takeoff on Runway 22 (7,003 feet), then turned away to perform some administrative tasks.

The jet took off on Runway 26, which is only 3,500 feet long. However, Brown said, a second controller wouldn't have necessarily made any difference. Officials from the FAA and NTSB were unclear or declined to answer when asked if the controller should have watched the airplane take off. NTSB member Debbie Hersman said, "The decisions about what needs to be done and what needs to be changed, that's all a part of the NTSB analysis." In general, the controller is responsible for separating the aircraft from other traffic. No other aircraft were active on the airport surface at the time of the Comair flight's departure. Andrew Cantwell, regional NATCA vice president, told CNN that controllers are not required to watch planes depart, and he does not think controller error contributed to the crash. "I believe the controller performed his duties as required and, unfortunately, there were other duties to be accomplished at the same time," he said. The controller worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and came back to work at 11:30 p.m. Saturday ... and after two hours sleep ... to begin an eight-hour overnight shift, the Associated Press reported, yesterday.

Capt. Larry Newman, chief of air traffic control for the Air Line Pilots Association, told USA Today that controllers "clearly have the obligation" to make sure airplanes are on the correct runway before allowing them to take off. "It's equally the responsibility of the [flight] crews to know where they're supposed to go and not supposed to go," he added. NATCA is opposed to ever allowing one-person shifts, spokesman Doug Church told AVweb on Tuesday. "One-person midnight shifts are never a good idea. It reduces the margin of safety and strips it down to its barest minimum," he said. NATCA has opposed one-person shifts -- officially -- since 1993, when that opposition was written into the organization's constitution, Church said.

Details Of Accident Clarified

"[The controller] expected the flight to take off from Runway 22," according to Debbie Hersman, of the NTSB. "He said the pilots didn't seem confused or disoriented" when he talked to them. The CRJ hit the grass off the end of the runway but then became airborne and was starting to climb when it crashed into trees. The jet reached a speed of 158 mph. The lone survivor of the crash, co-pilot James Polehinke, was at the controls, but it was the flight's captain, Jeffrey Clay, who had taxied the aircraft into position, the NTSB said. Clay then handed off the controls to Polehinke for takeoff. It was about an hour before sunrise, and Runway 26 was not lit, but the longer runway, 22, did have lights on, the NTSB said. Polehinke had landed at the airport two nights earlier, when the lights on Runway 22 were out of service, according to Reuters, but other reports said neither pilot had landed there since changes to the taxi routes in the last week or so. In the last two years, Clay had been at Lexington six times and Polehinke 10 times. Both pilots apparently had adequate off-duty time prior to the flight -- Polehinke had arrived in Lexington at 2 a.m. on Saturday, and Clay arrived at 3:30 p.m. The crew initially boarded the wrong aircraft when they checked in at 5:15 Sunday morning, the NTSB said, but were soon redirected to the correct airplane.

As of yesterday, Polehinke was still unconscious but no longer in a coma. He suffered numerous broken bones but was not burned. His condition remains critical, doctors said. Polehinke, 44, was hired by Comair in March 2002. Clay, 35, had been with the company since November 1999. On Monday night, crash investigators taxied a CRJ-100 around the airport for several hours, trying to get the same view that the pilots would have had.

Safety Questions Raised

As in all fatal crashes, questions have arisen about what could be done to prevent similar accidents in the future. USA Today cited hundreds of cases since the 1980s when pilots tried to take off or land on the wrong runways. Suggestions have ranged from installing better signage and runway markings, to requiring that controllers monitor aircraft movements. Capt. Terry McVenes, of the Air Line Pilots Association, told USA Today the union has been lobbying for better signs and lights for years. "For $8 a gallon for paint, you can solve a lot of problems," he said.

Technology is available that would allow pilots to monitor their position, superimposed on an airport diagram displayed on the instrument panel (similar to the moving maps now increasingly common in new cars). Honeywell also has a system that provides aural alerts, telling the crew which runway they are lined up on. Pilots also can check the cockpit compass heading to ensure it agrees with the expected runway heading, but while many pilots make this part of their routine, it's not clear that it's included on pre-takeoff checklists. If it's shown that any passengers survived the impact but were killed by the fire, that will likely raise questions about aircraft design and safety features.

For more info:

KLEX airport diagram

KLEX airport Web site
USA Today graphic of
taxi routes
NTSB investigation updates
Local continuing coverage:
Louisville Courier-Journal, Lexington Herald-Leader
Nov. 16 memo on tower staffing.


While not making any judgments on the causes of the fatal crash Sunday of a commuter jet in Lexington, Kentucky, it highlights the need for every pilot to remain vigilant during ground operations. To help ensure that you know where you are in reference to taxiways and runways, always use an airport diagram and mark the runway in use with the heading bug. Once you're on the runway, verify that the compass and heading indicator agree and confirm that you're on the assigned runway. Pilots should also know the meaning of all airport signs and markings. To help you brush up on signs and markings, review the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Runway Safety online course and Runway Flash Cards. Airport diagrams are available free to all pilots on the foundation's Web site.