Plane Never Became Airborne, Officials Say

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

LEXINGTON, Ky., Aug. 28 -- An Atlanta-bound Comair regional jet that crashed early Sunday, killing 49 passengers and crew members, never left the ground before slamming into a berm about 265 feet off the end of a short runway, authorities said Monday night.

The pilots on Comair Flight 5191 noted that there were no lights along the runway as they rolled down the 3,500-foot concrete stretch at Blue Grass Airport, said Deborah A.P. Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash.

By noticing the lights were not working, the pilots may have begun to realize they were on the wrong runway -- one too short for a safe takeoff in their CRJ-100 jet.

They should have been taking off from the airport's longer runway, which has lights and accommodates commercial aircraft. Investigators are trying to figure out why the pilots chose the shorter, unlit runway, which is to be used only in daylight.

Hersman and other investigators would not speculate Monday on that choice.

"The NTSB is on the scene to gather facts," Hersman said in response to a reporter's question about the cause of the accident. "We're gathering evidence and conducting interviews. . . . We don't perform analysis while we're on the scene."

The plane may have only barely failed to get airborne, according to calculations of its weight and speed provided by the NTSB Monday night. The plane would have required about 3,539 feet to take off, just a few feet more than the runway's distance.

The co-pilot was flying the airplane, and the pilot was calling out speeds and other observations to him. The cockpit voice recorder captures the pilot telling the co-pilot to rotate the aircraft -- an aviation term for lifting the nose gear off the ground -- because the plane had reached the appropriate speed, Hersman said.

A final analysis has not determined whether that call-out occurred on the runway or just off it. Hersman did not say whether the pilots realized they had gone off the runway.

Investigators found tire marks from all three of the aircraft's wheels in the grass beyond the runway. The plane then struck the berm and slammed into a fence and trees, erupting into a fireball.

The Delta Connection flight crashed just after 6 a.m. in a field within sight of the airport. Only co-pilot Jim Polehinke survived. He was in critical condition Monday.

Hersman told reporters that the flight data recorder and tapes of air traffic control communications indicate nothing unusual in the preflight routine. She said there was no communication between the controller and the crew during takeoff.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company