AP Doesn’t Get the Facts

Filed under:Need a Good Editor?,Sad — posted by Anwyn on August 29, 2006 @ 4:34 pm

Today’s AP article about Comair Flight 5191 is a sensationalist piece that emphasizes the colorful family life of Comair first officer James Polehinke while apparently completely ignorant of facts that flatly contradict its clear implication that Polehinke was primarily responsible for Sunday’s tragic crash in Lexington.

AP’s opening paragraph:

LEXINGTON, Ky. James Polehinke had a clean record as a pilot, with no accidents or mistakes, but he made a fatal error as he taxied Comair Flight 5191 into position: He made a wrong turn and tried to take off from a runway that was too short.

It is an established fact that the plane took off from the wrong runway. But Polehinke was the first officer, or copilot, of the plane; this article does not say so but previous reports have, and this article identifies the other pilot, Jeffrey Clay, as the flight captain. The paragraph indicates that Polehinke alone was responsible for the misguided taxi of the aircraft that lined it up on the wrong runway, but the crucial fact the AP missed is that the first officer physically cannot taxi the aircraft. The controls to do so are only on the captain’s side.

The plane that crashed in Lexington was a CRJ-200, an update of the CRJ-100. The -100 was introduced in 1992, the -200 in 1996. My father flew for Comair from 1991 to 2002, transferring into the CRJ-100 in 1995. He tells me that in this jet, unlike in a small propeller plane, the rudder pedals, which both pilots have, do not totally or even marginally control the ground movement of the aircraft. In addition to the rudder pedals, a pilot needs a nosewheel tiller, a small lever found at the left hand of the captain, who sits in the left seat. I spoke to a technical assistance employee at Bombardier, the maker of the plane, who confirmed that just as in the -100, the nosewheel tiller in the -200 is found at the captain’s station. My father confirms that the copilot is never in the left seat except during training, which does not take place on passenger flights.

The statement that Polehinke “made a fatal error as he taxied” is reprehensible. Though clearly both pilots were under a mistaken assumption about the correct runway, the captain takes ultimate responsibility for the behavior of the aircraft, and in this case physical responsibility as well, since only he can have been in control of the aircraft while it taxied.

The shorter runway at Blue Grass Airport is for daylight operation only, and its lights have not worked since October 2001. NTSB officials said the cockpit voice recorder showed the pilots were talking about the absence of lights on the runway, but they did not report it to the control tower.

The pilots, both of them, made a tragic error. But this article puts James Polehinke under a cloud of deeper suspicion than he deserves, and the AP should focus on facts like the specs of the cockpit rather than the fact that Polehinke’s mother is a lounge singer in Florida. Moreover, Polehinke and Clay are not the only pilots to have made this error, although unfortunately it was only theirs that resulted in loss of life.

In a letter filed in 1993 with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, maintained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a pilot described his experience: “Aircraft was cleared for immediate takeoff (traffic was inside the marker) on runway 22 at KLEX. [Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport.] We taxied onto the runway and told tower we needed a moment to check our departure routing with our weather radar (storms were in the area, raining at the airport). We realized our heading was not currect for our assigned runway and at that moment, tower called us to cancel the takeoff clearance because we were lined up on runway 26.” The pilot, who is not identified, suggested the Lexington airport post a warning to pilots “to clarify multiple runway ends,” according to a text of the letter provided by FlightAware.com.

There were many moments at which the pilots, both of them, could have realized their error. The lack of lights on the runway and the incorrect navigational heading should have told them they were in the wrong place, but a possible unfamiliarity with Lexington’s layout, among other probable factors of darkness and rainy conditions, prevented them from recognizing their mistake. As the above example shows, the tower should also have realized at some point that the plane was lined up incorrectly.

Richard Fausset of the L.A. Times reports that Polehinke was flying the plane at the time of the crash. This is in no way inconsistent with the facts above, as first officers routinely take off and land as pilots share duties. But the fact remains that control would have been transferred to Polehinke after the taxi to the runway that the AP trumpets as the “fatal error.” It appears that both pilots were at fault in this tragic accident. The sole survivor should not bear the sole guilt and in fact does not. He was not taxiing the plane; the flight captain bears ultimate responsibility, not the FO, and the AP needs to check its facts.

one comment so far »

  1. […] Yesterday I took the AP to task for wrongly implying that the first officer was at the controls of Comair 5191 when it taxied onto the wrong runway. […]

    Pingback by Anwyn’s Notes in the Margin » AP Course-Corrects — August 30, 2006 @ 8:22 am

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