LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The Comair commuter jet that crashed yesterday only seconds after taking off on the wrong runway in Kentucky never had a chance to attain the speed required to stay in the air, according to aviation experts.
The experts questioned how the pilots committed the fatal mistake - which started with making a wrong turn onto a shorter runway - and then failed to catch it through a series of checks that are supposed to take place before takeoff.
The crash was the deadliest U.S. commercial airline crash in nearly five years.
Forty-nine of the 50 people on board the plane were killed when the regional jet smashed into a hilltop after the pilots used a runway half the length of the intended runway at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, authorities said. The co-pilot, the only survivor on the Atlanta-bound flight, was reported in critical condition last night after surgery.
Many of the crash victims might have survived the impact, but a fast-moving fire scorched the fuselage, said Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn.
"From what I can see and where the bodies were placed, there was some reaction" among passengers to possibly try to evacuate, he said.
The 50-seat CRJ-100 required a runway length of at least 5,250 feet to achieve the takeoff speed needed to carry its full load of 46 passengers, two pilots, a flight attendant and an off-duty pilot who was riding in a fold-down "jump" seat, according to Bombardier, the airplane manufacturer.
But Comair Flight 5191 took off from Runway 26, a 3,500-foot runway intended only for small general aviation planes, instead of on Runway 22, which is the 7,003- foot runway reserved for commercial aircraft, according to Deborah Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The plane struck an airport perimeter fence while struggling to climb and crashed less than a mile from the airport, Hersman said. She said wreckage was spread over a large area.
"We have ground scars at the end of [Runway] 26," she said.
Information taken from the twin-engine plane's flight data recorder, or "black box," confirmed that the plane was lined up on the shorter runway, Hersman said.
A preliminary review of radio tapes in the crash indicated that the air traffic controller on duty cleared the Comair pilots to taxi and take off from the longer runway, Hersman said.
The flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder were sent to the safety board's laboratory in Washington for analysis, officials said.
Officials planned to interview the controller. They would not disclose what the controller might have seen from the airport tower, or what he or she was doing when the plane departed.
But the pilot in command, once given taxi and takeoff instructions, is responsible for safe operations.
The plane's captain was identified as Jeffrey Clay, 35, who joined Comair in November 1999.
The co-pilot, James Polehinke, 44, was pulled from the burning wreckage by a Lexington police officer and two airport security guards, officials said.
The flames kept rescuers from reaching anyone else aboard - among them, a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children and a University of Kentucky official.
Some of the bodies of victims were unaccounted for last night. A search was scheduled to resume this morning, officials said.
While what is expected to be a yearlong crash inquiry has just begun, authorities said it is clear that the five-year-old Comair plane never generated the necessary ground speed on the short runway to maintain its acceleration in the air.
A key focus will be on how the two pilots, the off-duty pilot riding with them and the controller in the airport tower failed to intervene after the wrong turn was made onto Runway 26, experts said.
"We're still working on determining what was going on in the cockpit and what information was discussed between air traffic controllers and the pilot," Hersman said.
The radio tapes will be critical to assess whether the pilots followed their preflight checklist and conducted themselves properly by limiting conversation to flight-related business.
"I've always questioned whether airlines should be allowing people to ride in the jump seat. I've always felt that two people in the cockpit was safe, while three was a distraction," said Aaron Gellman, an aviation safety expert at Northwestern University.
Blue Grass Airport is an uncomplicated airfield with only the two runways. The same taxiway is used to shuttle between the passenger terminal building and the ends of the two runways on the east side of the airport. Airline pilots taxiing to Runway 22 must cross the tip of Runway 26 while en route.
Investigators are expected to focus on whether the proximity of the ends of the runways factored into the apparent confusion in yesterday's crash.
The deadliest crash involving a missed runway assignment occurred on Oct. 31, 2000, when a Singapore Airlines jet bound for Los Angeles rolled down a closed runway in Taiwan. The plane struck construction equipment on the runway, resulting in 83 deaths on board the plane.
Most of the passengers aboard yesterday's flight had planned to connect to other flights in Atlanta and did not have family waiting for them, said the Rev. Harold Boyce, a volunteer chaplain at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
One woman was there expecting her sister. The two had planned to fly together to catch an Alaskan cruise, Boyce said.
"Naturally, she was very sad," Boyce said. "She was handling it. She was in tears."
The airport in Lexington offered a tenser scene. "Everyone on our flight had their cell phones out, calling," said Diane Boyer of Versailles, a suburb of Lexington, as she exited a flight from Atlanta. Boyer said she had heard about the crash before leaving that morning but decided to fly anyway because she did not want to wait any longer to return to family.
Among those killed were a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon to California. Jon Hooker, 27, a former minor-league baseball player, had just married Scarlett Parsley, 23, the night before in a ceremony attended by 300 friends and family members.
"It's so tragic because he was so happy last night," said Keith Madison, who coached Hooker's baseball team at the University of Kentucky and attended the wedding. "It's just an incredible turn of events. It's really painful."
Another passenger, Charles Lykins of Naples, Fla., caught an early flight yesterday so he could get home to his two young children after visiting friends and family in the Lexington area, said friend Paul Richardson of Winchester, Ky. A woman who answered the phone at Lykins' home said she was aware of Lykins' death and didn't want to talk.
Larry Turner of Lexington, also aboard the plane, was the chief officer overseeing the University of Kentucky's extension service, according to a statement from the university.
The crash punctuates a period of extremely infrequent airline accidents in the United States. Since the hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, there have been few crashes, and only one of a large jet: American Airlines Flight 587, which plunged into a residential neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., on Nov. 12, 2001, killing 265 people. Between then and now, there have been only three commuter plane crashes, all turboprops, which are planes where a jet engine drives the propellers. Yesterday's crash is the first since November 2001 involving a jet airplane.
Small regional jets tend to have good equipment because most of the aircraft is often new. But they are often flown by less experienced crews because the structure of the industry is such that most pilots get their first airline jobs with such companies before they graduate to jobs with mainline carriers.
The two pilots in yesterday's crash had a combined 11 years of service at Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.
Although Comair President Don Bornhorst said the pilots were experienced and had flown the airplane for some time, the flight crew apparently ignored a string of warning signs, according to experts and airline pilots.
A routine check of the onboard compass and directional gyroscope would have alerted the Comair pilots that they were set to take off on a 260-degree heading from Runway 26, instead of the assigned 220-degree heading on Runway 22.
"Navigating on the airport surface is a standard part of every takeoff. The runway numbers are painted on the pavement and you have an airport surface diagram in your lap," said William Cotton, a retired United Airlines captain who managed the airline's air traffic division. "It's just not common to think you are on one runway when you actually are on another."
Charles Sheehan and Jon Hilkevitch write for the Chicago Tribune. Wire services contributed to this article.
Other recent commuter jet crashes in U.S.
Oct. 19, 2004: Corporate Airlines Flight 5966 crashed in woods as it approached Kirksville Airport in northeastern Missouri, killing 13 of the 15 people on board. The plane was on a regular route from St. Louis. Federal investigators blamed pilot error.
Jan. 8, 2003: US Airways Express Flight 5481 crashed shortly after leaving the airport in Charlotte, N.C., for Greer, S.C. All 19 passengers and the two crew members were killed. Investigators determined that the plane's elevator control system was incorrectly rigged.
Aug. 21, 1995: Southeast Airlines Flight 529, a commuter flight from Atlanta to Mississippi, crashed during an emergency landing in a hayfield near Carrolton, Ga., killing eight of the 29 people aboard. A propeller blade broke off midflight, causing the aircraft to lose control. Investigators blamed poor maintenance procedures.
Dec. 13, 1994: American Eagle Flight 3379 from Greensboro to Raleigh, N.C., crashed in fog four miles from its destination, killing 15 of the 20 people aboard. Investigators blamed pilot error.
Oct. 31, 1994: American Eagle Flight 4184 from Indianapolis to Chicago crashed in Roselawn, Ind., killing all 68 aboard. Investigators blamed ice buildups on the aircraft's wings, which caused it to suddenly roll out of control.
Dec. 1, 1993: Northwest Airlink Flight 5719 crashed into a hillside near Hibbing, Minn., on its landing approach from Minneapolis, killing all 18 people aboard the aircraft. Investigators attributed the crash to pilot error.
[National Transportation Safety Board]