IMAGE: Airplane wreckage
Ed Reinke  /  Pool via AP file
A Lexington police officer guards the wreckage of Comair Flight 5191 at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., in this Aug. 29 file photo.
updated 1/17/2007 9:22:24 PM ET 2007-01-18T02:22:24

In the minutes before the crash of a commuter jet that took off from the wrong runway, the pilots discussed their families, their dogs and other job opportunities, and the airline said Wednesday that part of the conversation violated a federal rule against extraneous cockpit chatter.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a transcript Wednesday of the cockpit recording aboard Comair Flight 5191. The recording also showed that one of the pilots noted something was amiss when he looked down the Lexington, Ky., airstrip and said it looked “weird” because it had no lights.

The transcript was the first public disclosure of the pilots’ conversations during the ill-fated flight, which killed 49 people in the deadliest American aviation disaster in five years.

The transcript revealed that the flight crew “did not follow Comair’s general cockpit procedures,” Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said. “It is unclear what role, if any, this played in the accident, so it would be premature to determine that.”

In 1981, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted a so-called “sterile cockpit rule” that forbids, among other things, extraneous conversation during taxi, takeoff and landing.

Talk of everyday life
As the pilots went through preflight procedures, Capt. Jeffrey Clay talked about his young children having colds, and co-pilot James Polehinke discussed his four dogs. The two men also talked about pay and working conditions, even as the controller occasionally interrupted to provide instructions.

“How old are they?” Polehinke asked six minutes before the crash.

“Three months and two years old,” Clay answered.

“That’s a nice range, age range,” Polehinke said.

Marx said Comair does not believe those statements violated the rule because they were made prior to taxi. But a later conversation about a fellow pilot was a violation, she said.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the sterile cockpit policy prohibits “engaging in non-essential conversations within the cockpit.”

Peter Goelz, former managing director at NTSB, said a little extraneous conversation among pilots is not unusual, but the extent of the chatter between the Comair crew was rare.

‘The human factors’
“I think that when the human factors experts at the NTSB analyze the transcripts, they will identify this extraneous conversation as a contributing factor,” Goelz said.

The plane took off Aug. 27 in the dark from a runway that was too short for a passenger jet. The plane struggled to get into the air and went down in flames.

Polehinke was the lone survivor, losing a leg and suffering brain damage. He has told relatives he remembers nothing about that morning.

According to federal investigators, Clay taxied the plane onto the wrong runway at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport before Polehinke took over the controls for takeoff.

Polehinke said: “I’ll take us to Atlanta.” Clay responded, “Sure.”

Whoa’ before impact
Polehinke said the runway looked “weird with no lights,” according to the transcript. The captain responded, “Yeah.” The last intelligible word on the recording is the captain saying “Whoa” just a second before impact.

An engineering report also released Wednesday concluded the pilots never tried to abort the takeoff or realized they were on the wrong runway.

Sixteen of the passengers suffered smoke inhalation, indicating they survived the initial impact, the NTSB said. Other passengers sustained internal and brain injuries, broken bones, severed limbs and burns.

In a statement, Comair said: “We recognize the investigation is a long and difficult process for the families, especially when announcements — such as today’s — receive intense public scrutiny. Our desire is to learn as much as we can in order to prevent these kinds of accidents from happening again.”

Numerous lawsuits have been filed accusing Comair of negligence. However, the airline has sued the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration, contending they are partially responsible.

Runway maps not updated
A week before the crash, the taxiways at Blue Grass were altered as part of a construction project, but the maps and charts used in the cockpits of Comair and other airlines were not updated. The FAA did notify airlines of the changes through a separate announcement.

The transcripts and other documents were also the first time federal officials identified Christopher Damron as the lone air traffic controller on duty in the tower at the time of the crash.

The jet was supposed to take off from the 7,000-foot main runway, called runway 22, but instead used 3,500-foot runway 26, which is meant only for smaller planes.

Controller had looked away
The NTSB has said Damron cleared the jet for takeoff, then turned away to do administrative work and did not see the plane turn down the wrong runway.

According to documents released Wednesday, Damron initially told investigators he watched the plane move onto runway 22. Later he changed his account to explain he just saw it on the taxiway leading to runway 22.

After finishing his administrative work, Damron “heard a crash and saw a fireball west of the airport,” the NTSB said.

Damron was initially placed on leave after the crash but returned to work late last year. A call to his Lexington home went unanswered Wednesday.

As they prepared for takeoff, Polehinke asked, “What runway?” and inquired about runway 24 — which does not exist. Clay immediately responded, “It’s 22.”

Louise Roselle, one of the attorneys representing victims’ families, said the pilots’ conversation about searching for other jobs reinforces one of the central issues in the lawsuits related to the crash.

“It reinforces how Comair has been treating its pilots,” Roselle said.

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