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Cockpit conversation may have doomed flight

Published January 18, 2007


WASHINGTON - Seconds before the crash of a commuter jet that took off from the wrong runway, the co-pilot noted it was "weird" that the Lexington, Ky., airstrip had no lights, according to the transcript of a cockpit recording released Wednesday.

The captain responded, "Yeah." The last intelligible word on the recording is the captain saying, "Whoa," just a second before impact.

Also in the minutes before takeoff, the pilots discussed their families and job opportunities, violating a rule against extraneous cockpit conversation, the airline said Wednesday.

The transcript revealed that the flight crew "did not follow Comair's general cockpit procedures," Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said. "It is unclear what role, if any, this played in the accident."

In 1981, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a so-called "sterile cockpit rule" that forbids, among other things, extraneous conversation during taxi, takeoff and landing.

As the pilots went through preflight procedures, Capt. Jeffrey Clay talked about his young children having colds, and co-pilot James Polehinke discussed his four dogs. The two men also discussed pay and working conditions, even as the controller occasionally interrupted to provide instructions.

Forty-nine of the 50 people aboard Comair Flight 5191 died on Aug. 27 after the plane took off in the dark from a runway too short for a passenger jet.

Polehinke was the lone survivor, losing a leg and suffering brain damage. He has told relatives he remembers nothing about the accident.

According to federal investigators, Clay taxied the plane onto the wrong runway at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport before Polehinke took over the controls for takeoff.

Polehinke said: "I'll take us to Atlanta." Clay responded, "Sure."

Polehinke said it was "weird with no lights," according to the National Transportation Safety Board transcript. Clay responded, "Yeah." And then, "Whoa."

The NTSB has said the lone air traffic controller on duty at the time cleared the jet for takeoff, then turned away to do administrative work and did not see the plane turn down the wrong runway.



[Last modified January 18, 2007, 00:31:06]

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