Investigators probing the fatal Comair Bombardier CRJ100 accident at Lexington, Kentucky three days ago have disclosed that the single air traffic controller at work in the tower was preoccupied with other duties at the time of the aircraft’s departure.

Comair flight 5191 lined up on Lexington Blue Grass airport’s shorter runway 26 despite being cleared to depart on runway 22 – a strip twice as long. It crashed a short distance from the far end of runway 26 killing all but one of those on board.

US National Transportation Safety Board investigators state that the controller, during an interview by the agency, said that he last saw the aircraft as it progressed along taxiway ‘A’ in front of the tower, towards runway 22 (see runway diagram below article).

He told the NTSB that he scanned the approach and departure ends of runway 04/22 as well as the radar display and, having determined that there was no other traffic, cleared the aircraft for take-off.

CRJ Comair wreckage W445
© Empics / Ed Reinke 

 The NTSB released photographs of the wreckage yesterday (pictured above).

NTSB board member Debbie Hersman says: “At that point in time he turned around to perform administrative duties. He’d cleared the aircraft for take-off and he turned his back and performed administrative duties in the tower. At that point he was doing a traffic count.”

Forty-nine of the aircraft’s 50 occupants were killed when the aircraft crashed while attempting to depart for Atlanta on 27 August. The first officer of the aircraft, the flying pilot at the time, was the only survivor of the crash.

But Hersman points out that, although the first officer was the flying pilot, the taxiing operation in the CRJ would have been performed by the captain. The captain had accumulated 4,700h flight time with 3,000h on Comair CRJs – of which 1,567h were as pilot in command.

He had operated into Lexington six times in the previous two years, most recently in June this year, while the first officer – with 5,424h in total and 3,564h as second in command on CRJs – had operated there ten times during that period.

Read Airline Business deputy editor Brendan Sobie on the rush to blame pilot error in the Comair CRJ100 crash aftermath, and why airports need better runway signage

Lexington chart W445