Image: Kentucky crash
Ed Reinke  /  AP
Engines are seen in the burned wreckage of Comair Flight 5191 at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., in this file photo. The flight crashed on takeoff last summer after using a runway that was too short, killing 49 people.
updated 7/26/2007 1:47:21 PM ET 2007-07-26T17:47:21

Safety investigators studying a deadly plane crash in Kentucky considered whether changes are needed in airport markings and cockpit maps but said the accident also points to the dangers of a distracted crew.

The National Transportation Safety Board was deliberating on Thursday the cause of the crash of Comair Flight 5191, which killed 49 of 50 people on board last summer after the jet tried to depart from the wrong runway — a general aviation strip too short for a proper takeoff.

The NTSB's staff proposed the airport changes, which the five board members were to vote on later in the day.

NTSB staff concluded that the fact that the flight crew didn't have updated maps and notices alerting them to construction that had changed the taxiway route a week earlier was not a factor in the navigation error. The taxi route should have been "simple," investigators concluded.

Board member Deborah Hersman, who was the lead investigator on scene in the days following the crash, suggested there were numerous causes — nearly all of them human.

"That's the frustration of this accident — no single cause, no single solution and no 'aha' moment," Hersman said. "Rather than pointing to a mechanical or design flaw in the aircraft that could be fixed or a maintenance problem that could be corrected, this accident has led us into the briar patch of human behavior."

NTSB staff member Joe Sedor identified one possible overriding factor — the nonpertinent chatter between pilot Jeffrey Clay and first officer James Polehinke as they prepared for taxi and takeoff. Comair has acknowledged at least some culpability as a result of the talk, which violated Federal Aviation Administration rules calling for a "sterile cockpit."

Sedor said the talk "greatly affected the crew's performance." Hersman agreed but suggested the disaster couldn't be pinned on that alone.

"It's clear this crew made a mistake," Hersman said. "Their heads just weren't in the game here. The issue is, what enabled them to make this mistake?"

Hersman pointed to the paperwork the crew never got detailing the taxiway change. Not only was it not in their packet from Comair, but the air traffic controller didn't broadcast the announcement that morning, even though it had been doing so for the rest of the week.

NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said numerous things that could have prevented the crash.

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"We deal in redundancies in this business," Rosenker said. "That's what enables us to look after each other in the cockpit, and if one of the crewmen fails to do something, the other is there to help fill in the gap."

No witnesses were expected to be called at the NTSB meeting.

About 25 relatives of crash victims gathered at a hotel in downtown Lexington on Thursday to watch a video link to the hearing. Melissa Byrd, whose brother, Ryan, died in the crash, said it has been "a very long year" and she didn't expect any surprises from the hearing.

"Honestly, at this point, we don't care who's to blame," Byrd said.

Anita Threet, whose husband, Greg, was killed in the crash, said a comprehensive report that tells how and why it happened might help her family move forward.

"The more information we get, it does help," she said.

Although Comair has admitted some fault, it contends others should share blame.

The airline contends that the government itself _ specifically the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs the control tower at Blue Grass Airport _ also is partly responsible. At the time of the crash, only one controller staffed the tower, despite an FAA directive that at least two should keep watch.

One lawsuit filed by a victim's family makes a case against manufacturer Bombardier, suggesting that the plane should have been better suited to withstand flames. Autopsies showed that as many as 16 passengers inhaled smoke, suggesting they survived the impact but not the fire that followed.

The Aug. 27 crash of the Bombardier Canadair CRJ-100 marked the end of what had been called the safest period in aviation history in the United States. There hadn't been a major crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 plunged into a residential neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people, including five on the ground.

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