CBSN

Why Was Ky. Flight 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
Investigators are hoping to find a reason why Comair Flight 5191 chose to take off from a runway considered far too short for commercial passenger planes.

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.