July 28, 2014

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NTSB to determine cause of Comair crash that killed 49

JEFFREY McMURRAY
Associated Press Writer

   WASHINGTON (AP) — Kevin Fahey has read every document he can find about the Comair plane crash that killed his son and 48 others, but he says nothing can prepare him for Thursday, when a team of government investigators deliberates on what caused the accident at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.
   “It seems these things slay us, impact us much more significantly than we anticipate,” said Fahey, whose son Thomas was among the victims. “The devastation of the aircraft pretty much parallels where we are.”
   Fahey and other family members will be in Washington when the National Transportation Safety Board convenes to place blame for last summer’s crash of Comair Flight 5191 and make recommendations on how to improve air safety in the future.
   Commuter airline Comair, which is based near Cincinnati in Erlanger, Ky., has acknowledged at least some culpability. Pilots violated cockpit rules about extraneous conversation as they were going through their preflight checklist and may have been distracted as they steered the jet in the pre-dawn darkness onto the wrong runway — an unlit general aviation strip too short for a takeoff by a commercial aircraft.
   First officer James Polehinke was the lone survivor of the crash, and he sustained brain damage and numerous broken bones. He has told family members he couldn’t remember anything about the accident.
   Barring a surprise conclusion that vastly differs from NTSB’s interim findings, the runway mistake figures to be targeted as the cause of the crash. Unclear, however, is whether anyone beyond Comair will share blame from the government, with numerous liability lawsuits hinging on the decision.
   Comair contends that the government itself — specifically the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs the control tower at Blue Grass Airport — also is partly responsible. At the time of the Aug. 27 crash, only one controller staffed the tower, despite an FAA directive that at least two should keep watch.
   Also under scrutiny is a construction project at the airport, which altered the taxiway route just a week before the crash. Airport officials insist the project complied with FAA guidelines, however the updated route didn’t appear in a manual carried by Comair pilots and wasn’t broadcast over the tower’s audio system to pilots that morning.
   One lawsuit filed by a victim’s family also makes a case against manufacturer Bombardier, suggesting the plane should have been better suited to withstand flames. Autopsies showed as many as 16 passengers inhaled smoke, suggesting they survived the initial impact but not the fire that followed.
   “In a case such as this, it’s very easy for them to just say, ‘pilot error,”’ said Stan Chesley, a Cincinnati attorney who has filed suits against Comair and Bombardier.
   Comair spokesman Kate Marx said the airline is prepared to take its share of blame from NTSB but believes it shouldn’t be alone.
   “Throughout the investigation, we have acknowledged our responsibility to safely transport our passengers, but our willingness to evaluate our own procedures did not overshadow other contributing factors,” Marx said.
   The crash of the Bombardier Canadair CRJ-100 marked the end of what had been called “the safest period in aviation history” in the United States. There hadn’t been a major crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 plunged into a residential neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people, including five on the ground.
   During Thursday’s NTSB meeting, no witnesses will be called, and the only discussion will be between the five NTSB board members and NTSB staff.
   Jim Hall, the board’s former director, has expressed outrage that the NTSB chose not to take the extra step of a public hearing, which can involve the subpoena and testimony of witnesses.
   “This whole situation is a mystery,” Hall said. “I have great respect for my former agency, but I cannot understand why a hearing was not held on this accident. It doesn’t compute to me.”
   Since the crash, NTSB has issued a recommendation asking pilots to verify they are on the correct runway as part of their preflight checklist.
   Other changes could include stiffer enforcement of the sterile cockpit rules, which ban preflight chatter by pilots.
   Regardless of the findings, Peter Goelz, a former managing director at NTSB, says the tragedy of the Comair crash is compounded because it was so preventable.
   “Whenever you have an accident that is so heavily focused on human error, there is almost enhanced poignance to it,” he said. “It’s just so sad. The legacy, I hope, is an enhanced commitment on the part of everyone to get accurate information.”