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Wed, Aug 30, 2006

FAA Admits LEX Tower Should Have Had Two Controllers

But Would That Have Helped?

Two days after the fatal runway overrun accident at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, KY, the FAA has reportedly admitted the tower was understaffed when the Comair CRJ-100 attempted to take-off from the wrong runway on Sunday.

NTSB Member Debbie Hersman says the FAA tower manager told her investigators having just one controller on duty has been considered standard operating procedure for almost a decade. But CNN has obtained an FAA memo dated last November, which says a minimum of two controllers are needed in that tower at all times: one to handle controller functions, the other to deal with administrative and other duties.

As Aero-News reported, 49 of the 50 people on board were killed in the crash. Only the copilot, James Polehinke -- who was handling the takeoff -- survived. He's still in critical condition at the University of Kentucky Hospital.

At Tuesday evening's NTSB briefing, Hersman described what the lone controller in the tower was doing when Comair Flight 5191 rolled down the wrong runway.

"He says the last time he saw the aircraft was when it was taxiing to runway 22," Hersman said. After clearing the airliner for takeoff, the controller -- a 17-year employee at the Lexington tower -- then turned around to perform a traffic count, and turned his eyes away from the plane, Hersman said, which was lining up on runway 26 for takeoff.

The controller did not see the airliner's takeoff run. Hersman said the controller was not aware of a problem until he heard the crash.

The FAA now admits it should have scheduled a second controller on the overnight shift in the Blue Grass tower -- or should have separated tower and radar functions, handing radar control over to Indianapolis Center.

Andrew Cantwell, regional vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, had a mixed reaction to the announcement.

"I think it's a good thing that the FAA actually acknowledged that they were not following the guidance that they put out last year," he told CNN, "but it's extremely sad that it takes an accident for that to become public knowledge."

What is still uncertain -- and will likely never be known -- is if that second controller could have averted the accident. Cantwell says a second controller only would have helped to ease the workload -- and that ATC is not required to watch aircraft depart from the field.

Cantwell was clear in stating he does not believe controller error contributed to the accident.

"I believe the controller performed his duties as required and, unfortunately, there were other duties to be accomplished at the same time," he said.

On Monday, the FAA added a second controller to the overnight weekend shift at the Lexington tower.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.bluegrassairport.com, www.natca.org

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