NTSB: Air traffic controller had his back turned when the jet went down the wrong runway

Tuesday, August 29th 2006, 6:07 am
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- The lone air traffic controller on duty the morning Comair Flight 5191 crashed cleared the jet for takeoff, then turned his back to do some "administrative duties" as the aircraft veered down the wrong runway, a federal investigator said Tuesday.

Separately, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged violating its own policies when it assigned only one controller to the Lexington tower.

The commuter jet struggled to get airborne and crashed in a field before daybreak Sunday, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard, after taking off from a 3,500-foot runway instead of an adjoining one that was twice as long. Experts said the plane needed at least
5,000 feet for takeoff. The sole survivor, first officer James Polehinke, was in critical condition Tuesday.

The air traffic controller had an unobstructed view of the runways and had cleared the aircraft for takeoff from the longer runway, said National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman.

Then, "he turned his back to perform administrative duties," Hersman said. "At that point, he was doing a traffic count."

The controller, whose name was not released, had been working at the Lexington airport for 17 years and was fully qualified, Hersman said.

Polehinke was flying the plane when it crashed, but it was the flight's captain, Jeffrey Clay, who taxied the aircraft onto the wrong runway, Hersman said. Clay then turned over the controls to Polehinke for takeoff, the investigator said.

Polehinke was pulled from the burning plane after the crash but has not been able to tell investigators why the pilots tried to take off from the wrong runway.

Both crew members were familiar with the Lexington airport, according to Hersman. She said Clay had been there six times in the past two years, and Polehinke had been there 10 times in the past two years -- but neither had been to the airport since a taxiway repaving project just a week earlier that had altered the taxiway route.

Earlier Tuesday, the FAA admitted it violated a policy, outlined in a November 2005 directive, requiring that control tower observations and radar approach operations be handled by separate controllers.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the controller at the Lexington airport had to do his own job -- keeping track of airplanes on the ground and in the air up to a few miles away -- as well as radar duties.

Before Hersman's briefing on Tuesday, the NTSB said Polehinke was flying the plane; it made no mention of Clay being the one who taxied the plane into position.

The crew checked in at 5:15 a.m. but boarded the wrong plane at first, Hersman said. They started preparations before a ramp worker alerted them to the error. Even with the delay, passengers boarded on time, and a ramp worker found no problems during an inspection, she said.

Polehinke's mother, Honey Jackson, said her son is not to blame for the crash, and she asked people to be patient until all the facts were revealed.

"He could die at any moment," said Jackson, a lounge singer who lives in Miami.

It was miraculous that Polehinke was still alive, said Dr. Andrew Bernard, a surgeon at the University of Kentucky Hospital. He was not burned, but he had facial fractures; two spinal
fractures; a complex pelvis fracture; a broken leg, foot and hand; three broken ribs; a broken breastbone; and a punctured lung.

Polehinke's family issued a statement thanking the officers who saved his life and said their thoughts were with the victims' families: "We know that if he were able to, Jimmy would join us in telling them that they are in our constant prayers."

Federal officials are looking into whether runway lights or a repaving project a week before the crash confused the crew into turning onto the wrong runway.

On Monday night, investigators used the same model of aircraft that crashed, a CRJ-100, to try to recreate the last few minutes of Flight 5191 as it taxied away from Blue Grass Airport's terminal.

Polehinke had a clean record as a pilot, with no accidents or mistakes, authorities said.

Polehinke spent five years -- from 1997 to 2002 -- flying short-range, twin-engine planes for Florida-based Gulfstream International Airlines. He flew at small airports all over Florida and the Bahamas, starting as a first officer and getting promoted to captain in 2000.

Tom Herfort, director of operations for Gulfstream, was a pilot for the company at the same time as Polehinke. He recalled no problems with his colleague.

"You know who's got the good reputation and who doesn't. I didn't hear anything bad about the guy," Herfort said. "As far as I know, he was a good captain for us."

Jackson said newspaper reports about her son were lies, but her boyfriend and business manager, Antonio Cruz, confirmed newspaper reports that Polehinke's wife, Ida, shot him in the abdomen with a handgun in 1999. Polehinke said the shooting was an accident, but
his wife told police she shot Polehinke because she feared for her life after her husband threatened to kill her, The Miami Herald reported.

Polehinke declined to press charges, and Cruz said the couple had resolved their problems.

"They have overcome it, and they are working it out," he said. "It is a good relationship. They were supposed to travel to Italy or something, just the two of them."