Questions hang over why crashed jet used short runway
LEXINGTON, Kentucky (CNN) -- Why would an experienced pilot take off on a runway too short to accommodate his commercial jet -- rather than the longer one he told air traffic controllers he planned to use?
That's one of the questions federal investigators are trying to answer Monday as they dig into the data on Comair Flight 5191, which crashed Sunday morning about half a mile past the end of a runway at the Lexington airport, killing 49 of the 50 people onboard.
The Delta Air Lines commuter flight to Atlanta, Georgia, had been cleared to take off from the 7,000-foot Runway 22 at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, said Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. (Watch the NTSB describe the evidence found -- 1:27)
Based on the cockpit voice recorder and tapes from the control tower, "there were planning discussions, both by the air traffic controllers and the crew, conversations with each other, about using Runway 22 for departure," Hersman told CNN on Monday.
"We do know from the information that we have obtained on scene, gathered evidence, documentation and from the flight data recorder, that the runway that the crew used was Runway 26," which is about half as long as Runway 22. (Map of airport layout)
Hersman would not say whether the Canadian-built Bombardier CRJ-100 would have been able to take off successfully from a 3,500-foot runway. (Watch the results of an early NTSB review -- 3:27)
But former NTSB Vice Chairman Bob Francis said that the twin-engine jet would have needed about 5,000 feet of runway for a successful takeoff.
"It sounds like it got barely airborne and came back down, but there isn't really enough evidence yet to draw that conclusion," Francis said. "I can speculate; they cannot."
The Associated Press reported that the short runway had less lighting than the one the plane should have used, and severely cracked concrete -- not the type of surface typically found on runways for commercial routes.
Hersman said the NTSB probe will look at recent construction work at the Lexington airport, the lighting and the markings on the taxiways and runways.
Investigators also will study what went on in the tower, how many controllers were on duty and whether they saw Flight 5191 head down the wrong runway.
It's rare for a plane to get on the wrong runway, but "sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one," St. Louis University aerospace professor emeritus Paul Czysz told the AP.
The sole survivor of the crash, first officer James Polehinke, was in critical condition at a Lexington hospital, and was not able to be interviewed at this point, Hersman said.
The plane was carrying 47 passengers and three crew members. One of the passengers was an off-duty crew member sitting in the plane's jump seat, Blue Grass Airport Director Michael Gobb said. (Honeymooners among victims)
Only the identities of the crew -- pilot Capt. Jeffrey Clay, co-pilot Polehinke and flight attendant Kelly Heyer -- had been released by Sunday evening. Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn asked relatives of the passengers to provide dental records to help identify the bodies of those killed.
Clay began work with Comair in 1999 and was promoted two years ago to captain, said Don Bornhorst, the airline's president. Polehinke has worked for Comair since 2002, and Heyer had been employed with the carrier since 2004, Bornhorst said.
Comair purchased the jet in January 2001, and its maintenance was up to date, he said.
Bornhorst added that the flight crew had been "on a legal rest period far beyond what is required," but the specifics of the crew's schedule will be part of the NTSB investigation. (Watch the airline exec describe the deadly crash -- 7:30)
Hersman said investigators are combing through 32 minutes of cockpit voice recordings and "several hundred" readings from the plane's flight data recorder as they search for the cause of the crash.
NTSB investigators could take up to a year before formally ruling on the cause of the crash.
Monday, the 6 a.m. Comair flight made it safely from Lexington to Atlanta, but with a new number, Flight 6107. One passenger said he was more afraid of getting a shot from the doctor than getting on the plane. (Full story)
Sunday's crash is the worst U.S. aviation accident since November 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
All 260 onboard Flight 587 were killed, along with five people on the ground, making it the second-deadliest air crash in U.S. history.
CNN's Mike Ahlers, Jason Carroll and Miles O'Brien contributed to this report.