Runway Route Changed Before Ky. Crash

The taxi route for commercial jets using Blue Grass Airport's main runway was altered a week before Comair Flight 5191 took the wrong runway and crashed, killing all but one of the 50 people aboard, the airport's director said Monday.

Both the old and new taxiways cross over the shorter general aviation runway where the commuter jet tried to take off early Sunday, Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Michael Gobb told The Associated Press.

The runway repaving was completed late on the previous Sunday, Gobb said. It wasn't clear if the Comair pilots aboard Flight 5191 had been there since the change. Comair operates that regular 6 a.m. weekend flight to Atlanta from Lexington, but another commuter airline takes over that commute during the week.

"It's slightly different than it used to be," said Charlie Monette, president of Aero-Tech flight school based at the airport. "Could there have been some confusion associated with that? That's certainly a possibility."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and could not immediately be reached for comment.

Conversations between the plane's cockpit and the person staffing the control tower before dawn Sunday morning mentioned only the airport's main commercial strip, Runway 22, NTSB member Debbie Hersman said earlier Monday.

The pilots tried to lift off, but the plane clipped trees, then quickly crashed in a field and burst into flames, killing everyone aboard but a critically injured co-pilot who was pulled from the cracked cockpit.

Recovery teams worked late into the night Sunday and have retrieved the bodies of all 49 people who died in the crash in Lexington, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports.




At the same time, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have been looking at the black boxes - though the cause of the crash was no mystery.

It was the location of the wreckage that first gave investigators a strong clue as to what went wrong. The charred remains of the commuter flight came to rest at the end of runway 26, a runway the plane was not supposed to use.

Sources tell CBS News an air traffic controller cleared the flight to take off on runway 22, a lighted strip that two other planes had just departed. Inexplicably, the pilots turned on to the wrong runway, a much shorter airstrip used for smaller, private planes.

Although Blue Grass Airport's main runway is 7,000 feet, for some reason the plane departed Sunday from the 3,500-foot general aviation runway. The twin-engine CRJ-100 would have needed 5,000 feet to fully get off the ground, aviation experts said.

There also were clues for the pilot: Signs marking the right way. Less lighting. And severely cracked concrete — not the type of surface typically found on runways for commercial routes.

Left now are only scuff marks on the wrong runway and the wreckage of a plane scattered into pieces across a field about a mile away from the airport.

"We are absolutely, totally committed to doing everything humanly possible to determine the cause of this accident," Comair President Don Bornhorst said Sunday, following the worst American plane disaster in nearly five years.

Bornhorst said maintenance for the plane was up to date and its three-member flight crew was experienced and had been flying the plane for some time. Both of the plane's flight recorders were being reviewed.

Amid the devastation and lost lives, there was one story of heroism: Police Officer Bryan Jared reached into the broken cockpit and burned his arms as he pulled out James M. Polehinke, the plane's first officer. Polehinke, the only survivor, was listed in critical condition at University of Kentucky Hospital.

A light rain was falling Sunday when the plane taxied away from the main runway, which had been repaved last week. The Atlanta-bound plane plowed through a perimeter fence and crashed in a field less than a mile from the shorter runway.

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.

The crash marks the end of what has been called the "safest period in aviation history" in the United States. There has not been a major crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 plunged into a residential neighborhood in New York City, killing 265 people, including five on the ground.

Aerial images of the latest 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.

When rescuers reached it, the plane was largely intact but in flames. "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."

Those killed included a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a director of Habitat for Humanity International, and a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children.

Most of the passengers aboard the flight had planned to connect to other flights in Atlanta and did not have family waiting for them, said the Rev. Harold Boyce, a volunteer chaplain at the airport.

The crew members who died were Capt. Jeffrey Clay, who was hired by Erlanger, Ky.-based Comair in 1999, and flight attendant Kelly Heyer, hired in 2004. Polehinke has been with Comair since 2002.

The plane had undergone routine maintenance as recently as Saturday and had 14,500 flight hours, "consistent with aircraft of that age," Bornhorst said.