Bob Orr: Spinning a Tragedy

Bob Orr has been covering the FAA and the air industry for years. This afternoon, he takes a hard look at the Comair crash two and half weeks ago outside Lexington, Kentucky -- and raises some serious questions about what happened then, and what's happened since. - Ed.
There's something about the crash of Comair flight 5191 that really bugs me.

I've covered more than a dozen major air disasters in the past decade or so and each one has been awful – emotionally distressing and physically exhausting – and a personal tragedy for the families involved.

We usually find some comfort in the fact that safety lessons are learned: The US Air accident in Pittsburgh revealed a design flaw in the Boeing 737, the explosion of TWA 800 underscored the dangers of sparks and fuel vapors, and the crash of an American Airlines jet in Queens reminded us that even big planes can break if pushed beyond their limits.

But, that's what makes the Comair crash so sad. We aren't learning much except that the accident never should have happened and the parties involved seem to be working overtime to dodge the blame.

Now let's be clear about one thing: The pilots caused this accident. While the National Transportation Safety Board won't officially determine a "probable cause" for months, the evidence is unequivocal. The wreckage of flight 5191 came to rest at the end of the WRONG runway. It is the sole responsibility of the flight crew to properly select the correct runway for take off. The pilots failed to do that. Case closed.

So, what's with all the noise about control tower staffing and runway construction? Two agendas seem to be at play here and they both involve money.

This accident will be incredibly expensive for Comair, a struggling bankrupt airline that is a commuter feeder for Delta, a larger struggling bankrupt airline. Aviation lawyers began circling the crash debris shortly after the smoke cleared and there is no doubt that lawsuits and settlements will run into the tens of millions of dollars.

It would help Comair's case and its pocketbook if others share the blame. To that end the airline contends the pilots of the flight 5191 were likely confused by recent changes to the taxiway leading to both the right and wrong runways. Newly issued government charts, Comair argues, failed to show the changes, making it difficult for pilots to find their way in the dark.

The airline and others also point a finger of blame at the control tower, and controllers, in turn, are pointing at the FAA. There was only one controller on duty the morning of the crash and he was working on two hours of sleep with his back to the airfield as flight 5191 roared down the wrong runway to its demise. That sounds bad but, in fact, the controller did nothing we know of to contribute to the accident. Investigators who have listened to the air traffic tapes say his radio instructions were professional and clear.

There is one semi-legitimate issue here. The FAA admits it violated its own policy by having only one controller on duty. There should have been two – one to handle ground operations and the other radar. Now the controller's union, NATCA, is jumping up and down saying the FAA is to blame for compromising safety.

Well, not exactly. Aviation experts say despite the FAA's policy, two controllers really weren't needed at 6:10 am when the crash occurred. In the 45 minutes leading up to the accident, the lone controller handled a total of THREE airplanes. And even if TWO people had been in the control tower, it's not at all certain that either would have been able to see the pilots' mistake in time to radio any kind of alert. In any case, it is not the controller's primary job to watch the take-off.

NATCA, of course, would like more controllers in all towers. The union and the FAA have been involved in a bitter long term feud over jobs and benefits. The FAA recently imposed a new contract that pays new controllers much less than their experienced colleagues. And the union warns that a rash of retirements could leave the air traffic system strapped and undermanned. NATCA may be right to raise the issue, but it played no role in what went wrong at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport.

And that really is the problem.

The post-crash debate has focused too much on blame-shifting and union posturing and not enough on HOW and WHY such a foolish mistake was made by experienced men in the cockpit. Getting answers to those questions might be our only chance to learn anything of value from this accident.