Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Runways not the place for guessing games

The crash of Comair 5191 Aug, 27 in Lexington, Ky. marks an end to five years of nearly perfect airline safety.  While the investigation has just begun, the basic premise of the accident has become clear.

The early-morning flight was scheduled to depart the Blue Grass Airport at 6:05 a.m. EST. It was one of the first flights of the day, and at this time of the year, six in the morning is still considered "night" by the FAA. There are two main runways at the airport, runways 26/08 and 22/04 (airport runways are named based on their magnetic heading - add a zero to each number and you get their magnetic direction). All airline flights from the airport use the 22/04 runway, which has
an adequate length of 7,000 feet. With the wind calm, the Air Traffic Controller at LEX (the airport code for Lexington) would have assigned the aircraft to depart from the closest appropriate runway, which in this case for this size of aircraft would be runway 22.

However, to get to runway 22, the aircraft would have to taxi right by the end of runway 26. The two runways intersect a thousand feet or so away from their respective ends, and it is likely at the time of the accident the pilots could only see two runways of relative length stretching out into the infinity of darkness. That is, being on the wrong runway at this time of day would not look totally off, even from a pilot's perspective in the cockpit. Obviously, much more goes into making sure an aircraft is set for takeoff then just having things "look right," but visual cues in any activity done over and over again often give the operator an idea that something is wrong. In this case, a cursory glance by the pilots outside their window most likely would not have yielded an "oh shit" reaction until much later in the take-off - like when they realized they had about as half as much of runway available than they originally thought.
Of course, until the NTSB releases it's final report, which could take years, all of this is just speculation. The weary and frequent (or infrequent) traveler can take solace after this crash, however, because you can bet for a long while in the future making sure the correct runway is being used will weigh heavily in the minds of all pilots.

Eric Kochneff
Eric is a licensed commercial pilot

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