LEXINGTON, Ky. — The lone air traffic controller on duty the morning Comair Flight 5181 crashed cleared the jet for takeoff, then turned his back to do some “administrative duties” as the aircraft veered down the wrong runway, a federal investigator said Tuesday.
The crash killed 49 people — everyone on board except first officer James Polehinke, who was in critical condition Tuesday.
The jet struggled to get airborne and crashed in a field after taking off Sunday from a 3,500-foot runway instead of an adjoining one that was twice as long. Experts said the plane needed at least 5,000 feet for takeoff.
The air traffic controller had an unobstructed view of the runways and had cleared the aircraft for takeoff from the longer runway, said National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman.
Then, “he turned his back to perform administrative duties,” Hersman said. “At that point, he was doing a traffic count.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged violating its own policies when it assigned only one controller to the airport tower that morning. The policy is outlined in a 2005 directive requiring that control tower observations and radar approach operations be handled separately.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the controller had to do his own job — keeping track of airplanes on the ground and in the air up to a few miles away — as well as radar duties.
Air traffic controllers say there should have been more than one person on duty at Lexington Blue Grass Airport's tower early Sunday morning when an airplane took off on the wrong runway and crashed, killing 49 people and critically injuring the first officer.
FAA wanted separate functions
Documents obtained by The Associated Press indicate that the Federal Aviation Administration wanted the control tower function separated from the radar function — in essence, requiring at least two controllers to staff an airport or a larger radar facility to take over radar duties.
At the Lexington Blue Grass Airport, tower controllers are responsible for aircraft on the ground and in the air a few miles from the airport.
Another controller in a separate location called a "tracon," for terminal radar approach control, handles traffic in a radius of about 35 to 58 miles and an altitude of 10,000 feet.
A Nov. 16, 2005, FAA memo says: "Operations may be combined in the tower (2 positions) or split between tower and tracon, so long as the radar function is separated from the tower function." The memo was signed by the FAA's air traffic manager for Lexington.
At the time of the accident, the controller at the Lexington Airport was doing both tasks, according to controllers who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are involved in the investigation.
The FAA said Monday that it is scheduling a second controller to the Lexington airport tower during the weekend overnight shift. No reason was given for the change.
John Goglia, member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the FAA must have added a controller to help prevent such accidents. "The FAA must think so, because they took action," he said.
Would 2nd controller have helped?
Goglia said it's impossible to prove that another controller would have made a difference. "He might have seen it," Goglia said. "If it were daylight, he probably would have."
The accident happened about an hour before sunrise. The day after the fatal crash in Kentucky, a second controller was in the tower on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said two controllers are in the tower on weekdays but only one controller was scheduled for the weekend overnight shift because traffic was significantly lighter.
Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said there has been a net loss of 1,081 controllers in the last three years, according to the FAA's own figures. The numbers dropped from 15,386 in September 2003 to 14,305 in August 2006, due largely to a wave of retirements.
Many were hired as replacements for the controllers President Reagan fired in 1981 for striking the government illegally. Nearly half the current controllers are expected to retire in the next decade.
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