David Stephenson  /  Lexington Herald-Leader
Fire and impact marks are visible on the ground in a field west of Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., where Comair Flight 5191 crashed during takeoff on Sunday.
updated 8/28/2006 4:34:08 PM ET 2006-08-28T20:34:08

The taxi route for commercial jets at Blue Grass Airport was altered a week before Comair Flight 5191 took the wrong runway and crashed, killing all but one of the 50 people aboard, the airport’s director said Monday.

Both the old and new taxiways to reach the main commercial runway cross over the shorter general aviation runway, where the commuter jet tried to take off early Sunday, Airport Executive Director Michael Gobb told The Associated Press.

While the main strip, Runway 22, is 7,000 feet long, the shorter one, Runway 26, is just 3,500 feet. Aviation experts say the CRJ-100 would have needed 5,000 feet to fully get off the ground.

The runway repaving was completed late on the previous Sunday, one week before the crash, Gobb said.

It wasn’t clear if the Comair pilots aboard Flight 5191 had been to the airport since the changes. Comair operates that regular 6 a.m. Sunday flight to Atlanta from Lexington, but another commuter airline takes over the early morning commute during the week.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and said it was reviewing runway and taxiway markings as part of its investigation.

Uneventful conversations
Recorded conversations between Comair Flight 5191’s cockpit crew and the single person staffing the control tower in the minutes before Sunday’s crash showed no signs of trouble. The only runway mentioned was the main commercial strip, Runway 22, said NTSB member Debbie Hersman.

Somehow, the commuter jet ended up on Runway 26 instead — a cracked surface meant for small planes that was much too short for Comair’s twin-engine jet.

What followed was the worst U.S. plane disaster since 2001.

“The take-off began, and the aircraft continued to accelerate until the recording stopped,” Hersman said.

The plane clipped trees, then quickly crashed in a field and burst into flames, killing everyone aboard but a critically injured co-pilot who was pulled from the cracked cockpit.

Preflight ‘consistent’ with regular practice
Information retrieved from the cockpit voice recorder indicated that the preflight preparations had been “consistent with normal operations,” Hersman said Monday.

There were no obvious problem with the airworthiness of the plane and the engines were in tact and appeared to have been in good working order, she said.

Recovery Process Continues At Comair Crash Site
Jamie Rhodes / Getty Images
A small plane lands on runway 22 at Lexington, Ky., Blue Grass Airport on Monday as National Transportation Safety Board investigators, in the structure behind the runway, sift for clues surrounding the crash site of Comair Flight 5191.
“Air traffic control and the flight crew planned for a takeoff from runway 22,” Hersman said. But “The F.D.R. (flight data recorder) and the evidence on scene indicates the crew took off from Runway 26.”

Lowell Wiley, a flight instructor who flies almost daily from Lexington, said he was confused by the redirected taxi route when he was with a student taking off from the main runway Friday.

Pilots encountered problems with the runway layout at Lexington’s airport in the past, as well.

In a letter filed in 1993 with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, maintained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a pilot described his experience:

“Aircraft was cleared for immediate takeoff (traffic was inside the marker) on runway 22 at KLEX. We taxied onto the runway and told tower we needed a moment to check our departure routing with our weather radar (storms were in the area, raining at the airport). We realized our heading was not currect for our assigned runway and at that moment, tower called us to cancel the takeoff clearance because we were lined up on runway 26.”

Pilot suggested warning
The pilot, who is not identified, suggested the Lexington airport post a warning to pilots “to clarify multiple runway ends,” according to a text of the letter provided by FlightAware.com.

Hersman said the NTSB was interviewing the controller on duty early Sunday, reviewing records and transcribing the data and voice recorders retrieved from the crash.

Monday afternoon, investigators planned to use a high-riding truck to try to get the same view of the runway and airport layout that the pilots of Comair Flight 5191 would have had, she said.

She said they planned to conduct the same test on Tuesday at 6 a.m., the time of the crash to “try to see what the pilot saw.”

The plane’s two pilots were familiar with the twin-engine CRJ-100, and that plane in particular, the plane’s maintenance was up to date, and it wasn’t an old aircraft, Comair President Don Bornhorst said. Comair, based in Erlanger, Ky., is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc.

“We are absolutely, totally committed to doing everything humanly possible to determine the cause of this accident,” Bornhorst said Sunday.

At Blue Grass Airport, flights were back to normal Monday. The 6 a.m. Lexington-to-Atlanta flight took off safely, though with a different flight number, Delta 6107.

“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. “Things happen when you get older, it happens to everyone. You keep doing what you’re doing.”

The wreckage of Flight 5191 remained largely intact but severely burned in a field about a mile away.

The burned bodies of the 49 victims were removed from the plane on Sunday and taken to the state Medical Examiner’s Office in Frankfort for autopsies to determine the cause of death. Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said Sunday that they likely died in the fire.

The passengers
The victims included a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon , a director of Habitat for Humanity International, an owner of a thoroughbred horse farm, a University of Kentucky official and a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children.

Amid the devastation, there was also a story of heroism: Police Officer Bryan Jared reached into the broken cockpit and pulled out James M. Polehinke, the plane’s first officer, burning his own arms to save the man. Polehinke was listed in critical condition at University of Kentucky Hospital.

The crash marked the end of what has been called the “safest period in aviation history” in the United States. There has not been a major crash 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.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Plane took wrong runway

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