LEXINGTON, Ky. – Pilots of a Comair jet that crashed on takeoff noticed there were no lights as they prepared to take off, but they didn't recognize they were headed down the wrong runway, investigators said Monday.
The only survivor in the crash that killed 49 people, first officer James M. Polehinke, was piloting the plane, said Debbie Hersman, a National Transportation Safety Board member. He remained in critical condition Monday at the University of Kentucky Hospital.
The cockpit voice recorder showed that the pilots were talking about the absence of lights on the runway but that they didn't report it to the control tower, Hersman said.
Investigators were looking into whether the runway lights or changes made to a taxiway during a repaving project a week ago confused the commuter jet's pilot and caused him to turn onto the wrong runway.
Both the old and new taxiway routes cross over the short runway where Flight 5191 tried to take off before crashing into a grassy field and bursting into flame, Airport Executive Director Michael Gobb told The Associated Press.
"It's slightly different than it used to be," said Charlie Monette, president of Aero-Tech flight school at the airport. "Could there have been some confusion associated with that? That's certainly a possibility."
It was unclear whether the Comair pilots had been to the airport since the changes to the taxi route.
Lowell Wiley, a flight instructor who flies almost every day out of Lexington, said in an interview that he was confused by the redirected taxi route when he was with a student Friday taking off from the main runway.
"When we taxied out, we did not expect to see a barrier strung across the old taxiway," Wiley said. "It was a total surprise."
Investigators planned to use a high truck to simulate the pilots' view of the runways and taxiways in their efforts to determine why the jet turned onto a shorter runway before dawn Sunday.
Authorities also planned to prepare a full report on the pilots, including what they did on and off duty for several days before the crash, which was the worst U.S. plane disaster since 2001.
All discussions between the plane and the control tower were about a takeoff from the main strip, Runway 22, which is 7,000 feet long, Hersman said.
Two other flights departed without problems, but somehow the commuter jet ended up on Runway 26 instead — a cracked surface about 3,500 feet long that forms an X with the main runway and is meant only for small planes. Aviation experts say the CRJ-100 would have needed 5,000 feet to get airborne.
Both runways at Blue Grass Airport have lights along the edges, although the ones on the longer runway are much higher intensity. The long runway also has lights in the center. In the days leading up to the crash, those runway center lights were not working, according to a notice the Federal Aviation Administration sent to airlines.
Hersman said investigators were looking into reports about work that had been done at the airport — "anything that might have changed the configuration or appearances of the airport."
According to the NTSB database, there have been four accidents caused by pilots taking off on the wrong runway worldwide since 1982.
"It's not common," said Bill Waldock, aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. "It's right up there with lightning strikes."
Air traffic controllers are not responsible for making sure pilots are on the right runway, said John Nance, a pilot and aviation analyst.
"You clear him for takeoff and that's the end of it," Nance said. "It's not the duty of the controller to baby-sit every flight. It would have been great if he or she had, but they have other duties up there."
The FAA said a second air traffic controller would be added to the weekend overnight shifts at the airport beginning next weekend. Agency spokeswoman Laura Brown declined to give a reason for the decision.
According to a NASA database, a twin-engine jet taxied to the wrong runway at Lexington in November 1993 and the tower called to tell them about their mistake. The pilot reported that the confusing runway intersection contributed to the incident.
The NTSB will re-create the pilots' last 72 hours, focusing on fatigue and stress issues, Waldock said. Agents will review how many flights the pilots made, how much rest they had, any medication they took and even whether they had coffee that morning.
Hersman said the NTSB has not yet interviewed the lone controller on duty at the time, reviewed records and transcribed the data and voice recorders. She said information retrieved from the cockpit voice recorder indicates that the preflight preparations had been "consistent with normal operations."
At the airport, flights were back to normal Monday, although the shorter runway has remained closed since the accident. The daily 6 a.m. Lexington-to-Atlanta flight took off safely.
"Obviously there is some anxiety when something like this happens, but it is not something that would stop me from going," said Mark Carroll, 47, a computer consultant from Lexington who was boarding the flight to Atlanta.
The bodies of the 49 victims were taken to the medical examiner's office in Frankfort for autopsies. Kentucky's chief medical examiner, Dr. Tracy Corey, was uncertain how long it would take to identify all the victims. Comair had not released a passenger manifest and said it was seeking permission from victims' families to release the names.
Medical examiners used medical and dental records, personal effects and in some cases fingerprints to help identify bodies, Corey said.
Some victims were starting vacations, while others were returning to work after traveling.
Attorney Les Morris and his wife, Kay Craig Morris, had been headed to an Alaskan cruise. Marcie Thomason, an accountant in Washington, D.C., was heading home after returning to her native Kentucky for a wedding shower in her honor.
Thomason normally flew back to Washington out of Louisville.
"I guess she wanted to get back early and took the flight to Atlanta," said J. David Smith, a friend of her family.
Among other victims were a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a director of Habitat for Humanity International, an owner of a thoroughbred horse farm and a University of Kentucky official.
The crash in Lexington was the deadliest in the U.S. since Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 plunged into a residential neighborhood in New York City, killing 265 people, including five on the ground.