James Polehinke, copilot of the Comair jet that crashed on takeoff from Lexington last year, and Amy Clay, widow of captain Jeffrey Clay, have filed lawsuits against the FAA, the maker of the airport charts, the Lexington airport, and a company involved with the lighting at the airport, AVCON. Yet another article describes the defendants as the FAA, the airport, the chart maker, and construction company Tetra Tech rather than AVCON.
The NTSB report assigned the largest portion of blame to the pilots, saying they failed to notice “clues” that they were on the wrong runway.
The FAA, by its own regs, should have had two controllers but had only one, who had his back to the strip and did not see Comair 5191 lining up on runway 26 rather than 22 as had been directed. I don’t see how the NTSB let FAA off as lightly as it did.
According to a news release from the airport, NTSB cleared them entirely:
A spokeswoman for the airport, Amy Caudill, said in a news release that the NTSB’s investigation found that neither the airport board nor its employees were responsible for the crash, and FAA inspections found that the airport’s signs and markings met FAA standards.
The chart maker declined to comment. I assume charts are issued to pilots by the airline, but the airline can only issue the charts it receives from the maker. The question would seem to be, were these charts provided according to the conventional update schedule and the construction/renovation to the runways took place after they were issued, with no regs in place to insure issuance of new charts, even outside the ordinary bureaucratic schedule? Or were they late even according to the usual schedule?
And now we come to the crux of the matter: Runway lights.
The lawsuit says AVCON Inc., of Orlando, Fla., was responsible for runway lighting at the airport that was “so erratic, haphazard and/or improper that many commercial pilots, including the pilots of Flight 5191, could not rely on or expect the lighting for the runways and taxiways to comply with applicable laws, rules, regulations procedures and orders.”
Perhaps that is true. But the damning information is that the runway they were directed to was edge-lit, if not center-lit, and the runway they lined up on was not lit at all. Polehinke and Clay may win the lawsuit because the simple fact that the main runway was not center-lit goes to the idea that the lighting system as a whole was faulty. But though it may gain them a technical point in court, the bottom line is that professional pilots ought to know better than to take off from an unlit runway in the dark.
The controller, Christopher Damron, an FAA employee, failed to give taxiing and takeoff instructions that detailed the unusual conditions at the airport and failed to check the location of the plane before allowing it to take off, the suits claim.
While a suit against the FAA should win on the grounds that there should have been two controllers, the single controller in the tower cannot be faulted if he specified “runway 22” and the pilots lined up on runway 26. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the two runways were within 40 degrees of one another (the runway numbers refer to the compass direction of takeoff or landing, so runway 22 is at 220 degrees, or roughly southwest, and 26 is at 260 degrees, or almost due west).
The NTSB cited the pilots’ failure to note “clues” that they were on the wrong runway. While the notion that pilots should have to rely on “clues” rather than correct information and clear indicators to get them to the proper runway is frightening and spurious, the fact remains that they should notice, whether they have to or not. And the inescapable fact is that a darkened runway is surely one of the biggest clues of all.
Update: Commenter Buck, below, is my father as well as a retired Comair pilot, and he helped me slap the AP’s wrist last year when they were so busy publishing sensationalism that saddled F.O. Polehinke with more than his fair share of blame. He has a couple of points I need to highlight:
Most airports the size of Lexington’s do not have runway centerline lighting. Centerline lights are required only for runways which have an ILS approach with lower than standard visibility minimums.
That will be an important point in the suit against AVCON and could moot my theory that they may win that one. If the lights on the main runway were standard, it will be that much more obvious that they ignored the lit runway in favor of the dark one.
You seem to say that the NTSB completely cleared the FAA of blame in the accident, but the news release you quoted cites only the airport board and its employees as free from responsibility for the accident.
I haven’t read the NTSB report either, but the news accounts agree they assigned primary responsibility to the pilots, whereas at the time of the accident I would have said there was plenty of blame to go on both the pilots and the FAA–thus my comment that NTSB seemed to let the FAA off lightly, but no, they were not held blameless.
I doubt that most pilots, especially airline pilots who might work as many as seven or eight flights a day, would even look at his airport chart when operating at an airport with which he is familiar.
This does not surprise me, but it does cast the suit against chart maker Jeppeson in a new and distasteful light. Since I doubt there’s much chance of anybody proving anything about the charts in court other than whether or not they were outdated, I’m guessing Jeppeson may take a hit. It’s been reported ever since the accident that the charts were indeed incorrect. So we may see a company who was both responsible (for not having a correct chart) and blameless (in that the pilots may not even have looked at the chart at all) taking a hit to save face for the pilots.
What a mess.