Flight Data: Plane On Wrong Runway

The tail of Comair Flight 5191 rested among trees at left after the plane crashed in a field during take off less then a mile from the runway at the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006. Forty-nine people were killed. AP

A commuter jet mistakenly trying to take off on a runway that was too short crashed into a field Sunday and burst into flames, killing 49 people and leaving the lone survivor — a co-pilot — in critical condition, federal investigators said.

Preliminary flight data from Comair Flight 5191's black box recorders and the damage at the scene indicate the plane, a CRJ-100 regional jet, took off from the shortest runway at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said.

Earlier Sunday, U.S. officials told CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr that the pilots inexplicably used a runway that was too short to accommodate the takeoff of the jet. The officials said the pilots had made "a critical and fatal mistake."

The 3,500-foot-long strip, unlit and barely half the length of the airport's main runway, is not intended for commercial flights. The twin-engine CRJ-100 would have needed 5,000 feet to fully get off the ground, aviation experts said.

The smaller, un-lighted airstrip is primarily used for lightweight business jets, Orr reports.

It wasn't immediately clear how the plane ended up on the shorter runway in the predawn darkness. There was a light rain Sunday, and the strip veers off at a V from the main runway, which had just been repaved last week.

"We will be looking into performance data, we will be looking at the weight of the aircraft, we will be looking at speeds, we will pull all that information off," Hersman said.

The Atlanta-bound plane plowed through a perimeter fence and crashed in a field less than mile from the end of that runway at about 6:07 a.m. Aerial images of the crash site in the rolling hills of Kentucky's horse country showed trees damaged at the end of the short runway and the nose of the plane almost parallel to the small strip.

Among the dead were a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon and a man who took an early flight to get home to his children. Jon Hooker had just married Scarlett Parlsey the night before the crash in a ceremony with 300 friends and relatives at Lexington's Headley-Whitley Museum.

Pilot Jeffrey Clay was killed in the crash and fire, but resuce workers did pull co-pilot Jim Polehinke from the wreckage, but he had critical injuries and burns, Orr reports.



When rescuers reached it, the plane was largely intact but in flames. A police officer burned his arms dragging the only survivor from the cracked cockpit.

The flames kept rescuers from reaching anyone else aboard — a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children and a University of Kentucky official among them.

"They were taking off, so I'm sure they had a lot of fuel on board," Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said. "Most of the injuries are going to be due to fire-related deaths."

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency had no indication that terrorism was involved in any way in what was the country's worst domestic plane crash in five years.

It's rare for a plane to get on the wrong runway, but "sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one," said Saint Louis University aerospace professor emeritus Paul Czysz.

  • Sean Alfano

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