LEXINGTON, Ky. – James Polehinke had a clean record as a pilot, with no accidents or mistakes, but he made a fatal error as he taxied Comair Flight 5191 into position: He made a wrong turn and tried to take off from a runway that was too short.
The crash killed 49 people — everyone on board except the 44-year-old Polehinke, who was in critical condition Tuesday.
Polehinke's mother, Honey Jackson, said her son is not to blame for the crash, and she asked people to be patient until all the facts were revealed.
"He could die at any moment," said Jackson, a lounge singer who lives in Miami.
Jackson's boyfriend and business manager, Antonio Cruz, said Polehinke was on life support, with punctured lungs and a broken pelvis. He was scheduled to have the first of many surgeries Tuesday, Cruz said.
"Nobody can say for sure yet if he'll be able to recover," Cruz said.
Polehinke was pulled from the burning plane after the crash, but he has not been able to tell investigators why he was on the wrong runway.
Federal officials are looking at data from flight records, the control tower and evidence from the crash scene. They are considering whether runway lights or a repaving project a week before the crash could have played a role. Investigators used the same model of aircraft that crashed, a CRJ-100, to try to recreate the last few minutes of Comair Flight 5191 as it taxied away from Blue Grass Airport's terminal.
All recorded conversations between the cockpit and control tower indicate the pilots had planned to use the longer runway, investigators said. Somehow, they instead turned onto the short runway and took off — noticing the lack of lights but apparently not realizing they were on the wrong runway until it was too late.
The plane hit a fence and trees and crashed in a nearby field. The flight captain, Jeffrey Clay, 35, was killed along with another crew member and 47 passengers.
A light rain was falling Sunday, and it was still dark around 6 a.m. when the plane crashed. It was unclear whether the Comair pilots had been to the airport since the changes to the taxi route. But Polehinke had experience taking off and landing in small airports.
Polehinke spent five years — from 1997 to 2002 — flying short-range, twin-engine planes for Florida-based Gulfstream International Airlines. He flew at small airports all over Florida and the Bahamas, starting as a first officer and getting promoted to captain in 2000.
Tom Herfort, director of operations for Gulfstream, was a pilot for the company at the same time as Polehinke. He recalled no problems with his colleague.
"You know who's got the good reputation and who doesn't. I didn't hear anything bad about the guy," Herfort said. "As far as I know, he was a good captain for us."
Polehinke had a full-time schedule, which typically means flying 85 to 90 hours a month, Herfort said. His flight schedule with the 19-seat planes routinely took him to the Bahamas, where most airports have no air traffic control towers, Herfort said.
"You have to really be on top of your game," Herfort said. "You've got to know how your aircraft performs. You've got to be able to judge weather."
The shorter runway at Blue Grass Airport is for daylight operation only, and its lights have not worked since October 2001. NTSB officials said the cockpit voice recorder showed the pilots were talking about the absence of lights on the runway, but they did not report it to the control tower.
Reporters were allowed to see the crash site Tuesday, which still smelled strongly of jet fuel and had been cordoned off with yellow police tape. Grass and trees surrounding remains of the airplane had been charred by the crash.
Nothing inside the cockpit was distinguishable, just a twisted mass of wires and wreckage. Parts of the engine were found several yards away, and a large piece of the plane's tail had smashed into a downed tree 50 yards away. A large plastic sheet on the ground was covering "personal items," said NTSB spokesman Terry Williams.
The crash 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. The bodies of the 49 victims in Kentucky were taken to the medical examiner's office in Frankfort for autopsies.
Cruz said a nurse told him there were 20 doctors and nurses working to keep Polehinke alive.
"But it looks like they have a different reason for keeping him alive; they want to blame somebody for this," he said.
Jackson said newspaper reports about her son were lies, but Cruz confirmed a report by the Miami Herald that Polehinke's wife, Ida, shot him in the stomach with a handgun in 1999. Polehinke said the shooting was an accident, but his wife told police she shot Polehinke because she feared for her life after her husband threatened to kill her, the newspaper reported.
Polehinke declined to press charges, and Cruz said the couple had resolved their problems.
"They have overcome it, and they are working it out," he said. "It is a good relationship. They were supposed to travel to Italy or something, just the two of them."