Video: Comair crash: Who’s responsible?

updated 8/30/2006 4:48:18 PM ET 2006-08-30T20:48:18

Details of the crash of Comair Flight 5191 are rapidly emerging.  Among the latest, news that only one air traffic controller was on duty at the Kentucky airport.  How significant is that information, and what role do air traffic controllers play in these cases?

We asked aviation analyst Paul McCarthy.

'The Most': Is it legal to have just one controller on duty?

Paul McCarthy, aviation analyst: Yes it is legal to operate a Part 121 aircraft (scheduled airline service with more than 9 seats) into an airport without a tower or with a closed tower. It is also not uncommon for a tower to be manned by one person if the traffic is light. Here, the FAA sets a staffing level predicated on the anticipated traffic flow. Apparently Lexington set two controllers for the 0600 time frame, but only one was actually on duty.

We have to be very careful as the controller is not under an affirmative obligation to see the aircraft onto the runway. The controller is there to make certain that there is separation between aircraft. Anything else is a collateral duty. When there is testimony that the runway was scanned for traffic and a clearance issued, that is it. The ability of the controller to warn is just one of many safety valves which could have prevented the accident. Any investigation must look at the runway charts, the runway configuration, lighting anomalies, signage and marking; in short all of the things intended to ensure situational awareness in the pilots. Something broke down. Why? A lot of possibilities and right now not a lot of answers.

One thing is certain--the controller, while unfortunate, is not a smoking gun.

'The Most:' How significant is the fact that one controller was on duty?

McCarthy: The controller is just one more safety check of many in helping the pilots know where they were. This is a case where everything seemed to break down. The protective barriers failed and now, the NTSB needs to figure out what happened and why. At the end of the day, having one controller in the tower is not a smoking gun. Some airports have one controller while others sometimes have none.

The controller's primary focus is to watch the plane as it taxis around the airport and watch out for other traffic on the ground. The controller does not have to physically watch the plane take off. Once the jet has been cleared for takeoff, chances are the controller is focusing on the next plane on the ground. In this case, there wasn't much traffic and so the controller turned around to take care of administrative duties.

'The Most': Do you think the controller knew the plane was on the wrong runway?

McCarthy: I doubt the Lexington controller even realized the plane was on the wrong runway, especially in the early morning hours. At the airport, the taxiway leads to both runways. He cleared the aircraft to roll on runway 22, but the pilot ended up on runway 26. He probably didn't know the jet was on the wrong runway until it started to takeoff. At that point, it was probably too late for him to stop the accident anyway.

'The Most': Did the airport do enough to prevent any type of confusion? Was this a potential problem waiting to happen?

McCarthy: Runway lights seem to be a key issue worth looking at and so is the signage. The signs for runway 22 and 26 are very close together (more or less in the same place) and they themselves are a little confusing with arrows pointing in all directions.  Other issues to investigate include pilot fatigue, airworthiness of the aircraft, etc.

Regional airlines are notorious for pilots not getting enough sleep when they're hopping around the country.

Getting lost at night at an airport is not unusual. There are different colored lights around the property and the set-up is easily disorienting. Computers help guide pilots now, but the jet in question did not have that technology.

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