WASHINGTON – A 1981 "sterile cockpit rule" forbids, among other things, extraneous conversation during taxi, takeoff and landing.
But in the moments before the worst American disaster in five years, in which 49 people died in the crash of a Comair passenger jet that went off a too-short runway, pilots Jeffrey Clay and James Polehinke discussed dogs, family, and their jobs, according to a transcript released Wednesday of the cockpit recording aboard Comair Flight 5191.
Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said the airline believes those statements did not violate the Federal Aviation Administration's so-called sterile cockpit rule because they were made before the aircraft began to taxi. But a later conversation about a fellow pilot was a violation, she said.
The transcript revealed that the flight crew "did not follow Comair's general cockpit procedures," Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said. "It is unclear what role, if any, this played in the accident, so it would be premature to determine that."
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the sterile cockpit policy prohibits "engaging in non-essential conversations within the cockpit."
According to federal investigators, Clay taxied the plane onto the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., before Polehinke took over the controls for takeoff.
Polehinke said: "I'll take us to Atlanta." Clay responded, "Sure."
Polehinke said the runway looked "weird with no lights," according to the transcript. The captain responded, "Yeah." The last intelligible word on the recording is the captain saying "Whoa" just a second before impact.
Polehinke was the lone survivor, losing a leg and suffering brain damage. He has told relatives he remembers nothing about that morning.
The transcript was part of the public docket on the crash the National Transportation Safety Board unsealed Wednesday. Also included in the docket was an interview with the air traffic controller on duty, a receipt showing first officer James Polehinke ordered beer the night before and autopsy findings indicating a number of passengers may have initially survived the impact.
Peter Goelz, the former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board, says the chatter prior to Comair Flight 5191 was so excessive, it might have contributed to the Aug. 27 crash.
"I think that when the human factors experts at the NTSB analyze the transcripts, they will identify this extraneous conversation as a contributing factor," Goelz said.
An engineering report also released Wednesday concluded the pilots never tried to abort the takeoff or realized they were on the wrong runway.
Sixteen of the passengers suffered smoke inhalation, indicating they survived the initial impact, the NTSB said. Other passengers sustained internal and brain injuries, broken bones, severed limbs and burns.
In a statement, Comair said: "We recognize the investigation is a long and difficult process for the families, especially when announcements — such as today's — receive intense public scrutiny. Our desire is to learn as much as we can in order to prevent these kinds of accidents from happening again."
Numerous lawsuits have been filed accusing Comair of negligence. However, the airline has sued the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration, contending they are partially responsible.
A week before the crash, the taxiways at Blue Grass were altered as part of a construction project, but the maps and charts used in the cockpits of Comair and other airlines were not updated. The FAA did notify airlines of the changes through a separate announcement.
The transcripts and other documents were also the first time federal officials identified Christopher Damron as the lone air traffic controller on duty in the tower at the time of the crash.
The jet was supposed to take off from the 7,000-foot main runway, called runway 22, but instead used 3,500-foot runway 26, which is meant only for smaller planes.
The NTSB has said Damron cleared the jet for takeoff, then turned away to do administrative work and did not see the plane turn down the wrong runway.
According to documents released Wednesday, Damron initially told investigators he watched the plane move onto runway 22. Later he changed his account to explain he just saw it on the taxiway leading to runway 22.
After finishing his administrative work, Damron "heard a crash and saw a fireball west of the airport," the NTSB said.
Damron was initially placed on leave after the crash but returned to work late last year. A call to his Lexington home went unanswered Wednesday.
As they prepared for takeoff, Polehinke asked, "What runway?" and inquired about runway 24 — which does not exist. Clay immediately responded, "It's 22."
Louise Roselle, one of the attorneys representing victims' families, said the autopsy reports could raise questions about the aircraft, a Bombardier CL-600-2B19 (CRJ-100), if people survived the impact but were unable to escape.
"This plane did not get more than about eight feet off the ground," Roselle said. "All but one person died. You have to ask the question of why did they die?"
Marc Duchesne, a spokesman for Bombardier Aerospace, said in a telephone interview that "the CRJ family is an extremely safe and reliable aircraft," with more than 1,000 in service.