Pilot error?

The recent fatal crash of a Bombardier CRJ100 in Kentucky has highlighted once again the need for pilots, airlines and safety authorities to focus on runway and airport situational awareness. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has just started probing the fatal 27 August crash of a Comair CRJ in Lexington, Kentucky but the investigation will clearly focus on why the pilots attempted to take off from the shorter of the airport’s two runways.

The CRJ, operating as Delta Connection Flight 5191 to Atlanta, took off from Blue Grass Airport’s runway 26, a 3,500ft (just over 1,000m) unlit strip typically only used for general aviation aircraft. It crashed into a field at the end of the runway, killing all 47 passengers and two of the three crew members. Comair is a Cincinnati-based regional subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.

The CRJ should have been using runway 22, a 7,000ft (over 2,000m) lit runway. After taxiing from the terminal, the aircraft should have crossed runway 26 and proceeded to the threshold of runway 22 (see chart below). Taxiway A-7 was closed, which could have caused confusion. A newly opened taxiway next to A-7 was available, although it likely was not in the airport diagram carried by the pilots, and should have been used. Instead the pilots turned onto dark runway 26 and took off. The crash occurred prior to dawn at 6am local time.

A CRJ100 could only take off in 3,500ft if it was empty and if short field takeoff procedures were used. In this case, the aircraft was full of passengers and fuel and the pilots probably did not realise they were on the shorter runway until it was too late to abort.

Unfortunately this is not the first time in recent years that commercial aircraft pilots have taken off from an inappropriate runway.

In October 2000, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-400 took off from a runway which was closed for construction in Taipei, Taiwan. The Los Angeles-bound aircraft crashed after hitting construction equipment, killing 83 of the passengers.

In January 2002, a China Airlines Airbus A340 took off from a taxiway in Anchorage Alaska. Disaster was narrowly averted as the aircraft just cleared a snow bank at the end of the taxiway, which was over 1,000m shorter than the runway it was supposed to use.

In November 2005, an EVA Air Boeing MD-11 freighter also took off from a taxiway in Anchorage. And in February 2002, an Air France A320 attempted to take off from a taxiway in Lisbon. In this case, the takeoff was aborted after controllers recognised the mistake. 

Typically these types of mistakes are caused by pilot error with poor signage or lighting contributing causes. Safety authorities around the world have made signage improvements a priority in attempt to reduce runway incursions, which in recent years have been increasing at an alarming rate.

Programmes to distribute to pilots relevant runway and taxiway diagrams also have been initiated. Authorities may soon be urged to re-double these efforts.

There also has been a spate of incidents in recent years involving aircraft landing at the wrong airport. So far this year, a Boeing 737-300 operated by Indonesia’s Adam Air landed at the wrong airport in Indonesia, a 737-400 operated by Turkey’s Sky Airlines landed at the wrong airport in Poland, a Boeing MD-81 operated by Scandinavia’s Nordic Airways landed at the wrong airport in Spain and an A320 operated by Ireland’s Eirjet landed at the wrong airport in Northern Ireland.

These types of mistakes are generally caused by navigational errors rather than poor runway awareness. They probably could have been avoided if pilots adequately prepared themselves for their flights by reviewing airport designator codes, airport charts and other relevant information. In this era where serious aircraft technical problems are few and far between, it is clearly important for pilots to regularly review airport information, including taxiway and runway diagrams. Airlines could help out by regularly disseminating airport information and reminding pilots to review it prior to flight while airports could help out by making sure signs are accurate, large enough to read and well lit.

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