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Comair pilot’s wife: Crash not just crew’s fault

The wife of a Comair pilot killed in last summer’s plane crash in Kentucky says federal investigators were shortsighted in pinning almost all the blame on the crew.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The wife of a Comair pilot killed in last summer’s plane crash in Kentucky says federal investigators were shortsighted in pinning almost all the blame on the crew.

Amy Clay, whose husband, Jeffrey, was one of 49 people who died, says that while she always assumed the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation would focus heavily on the pilots, she was “floored” when the board listed them almost exclusively.

“There are a lot of other people and groups who have responsibility in this, and not a single one has taken it,” Clay said Wednesday in an interview at her northern Kentucky home. “All they want to do is point at the crew. No one person should have to shoulder the blame for this accident.”

Clay said that her husband was an outstanding pilot with an unblemished record and that she thinks problems with the aviation system contributed to the crash at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington.

The Comair jet crashed in the pre-dawn darkness on Aug. 27, shortly after taking off from the wrong runway — an unlit general aviation strip too short for commercial flights. Of the 50 people on board, only the co-pilot, James Polehinke, survived.

Voting last month in Washington, the NTSB decided that pilot error was the primary cause, and the Federal Aviation Administration had a lesser role. The NTSB findings are to be released in writing this month.

Other factors cited
One board member, Deborah Hersman, said in a concurring opinion obtained by The Associated Press that her colleagues may have overlooked some critical errors. She wrote that factors that should have been listed as contributing to the crash include a fatigued air traffic controller, a short-staffed control tower, outdated airport charts and missing paperwork that would have warned the pilots about a construction project that changed the taxiway route.

Clay said she believes contributing factors include the understaffed control tower and outdated maps inside the cockpit that didn’t reflect taxiway changes from the last time her husband flew out of Lexington.

“Jeff shares some responsibility,” she said. “That was Jeff’s cockpit. If Jeff were here he would say that. Since he’s not here, I’ll say it for him. And, if I could, I would go further with that and say, ’This is what I will do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’ But there isn’t anything. He’s gone. I don’t have an action item.”

Polehinke, who lost a leg, broke bones and suffered brain damage, has said he doesn’t remember anything about the crash. Clay, who has spoken to him, says he does recall riding in a van to the airport with her husband that morning.

She says Polehinke “got the short end of the stick” by surviving the accident. Her husband would never have been at peace living with the idea that he had a role in such a catastrophe, she said.

Clay, who until recently hadn’t talked to reporters in months, said she is breaking her silence to highlight mistakes in the aviation system that she believes still need to be corrected.

“I thought the federal government and NTSB were supposed to find ways to learn from this accident, and clearly they didn’t,” she said.

The AP left a message seeking comment with NTSB spokesman Terry Williams.

Blame hangs on six words?
Clay says she is baffled by the NTSB’s conclusion that it couldn’t determine whether having a second controller on duty, in accordance with FAA guidelines, could have prevented a crash. She points to a near-collision of airplanes last month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in which a controller was partly credited with preventing catastrophe.

“There are 300 people pretty happy that controller looked at the ground,” Clay said. “However, they say it wasn’t the controller’s job to do that in the Lexington crash. Pick a side. If you’re not supposed to look at the ground, why do we build a tower with a 360-degree view?”

Clay dismissed as overblown allegations that her husband and Polehinke violated “sterile cockpit” guidelines based on their cockpit conversation during takeoff. She counts just six words her husband said during the time, and other pilots have told her the only strange thing about that chatter was how “innocent” it seemed to be compared to typical cockpit talk.

“You hang that entire accident on six words?” she said.

Clay’s two children, Shelby, 3, and Sarah, 1, are aware their father died in an accident at the airport, but they don’t know the full story — in part because the family flies so often.

Sometimes, however, when a plane flies overhead, Shelby will still look up in the air and wave to her dad.