COMAIR crash and Tower Staffing – FAA: Tower staffing during plane crash violated rules – Aug 29, 2006

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday acknowledged that only one controller was in the tower, in violation of FAA policy, when a Comair jet crashed Sunday while trying to take off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Kentucky.

Forty-nine of 50 people aboard were killed.

The acknowledgment came after CNN obtained a November 2005 FAA memorandum spelling out staffing levels at the airport. The memo says two controllers are needed to perform two jobs — monitoring air traffic on radar and performing other tower functions, such as communicating with taxiing aircraft.

And utterly none of that matters.  Yes, it’d have been nice if there had been two controllers.  Maybe they could have averted the disaster, and this utterly meaningless loss of life.  Maybe not.  That’s all speculation at best.

What does matter is that a professional aircrew didn’t follow their procedures, and didn’t do even a basic review of their compass heading prior to taking off.  Those checks should have told them they were on the wrong runway, and the Captain of the Ship doctrine applies in a plane as much as it does on a ship.  If it happens on your watch, it’s your fault, whether you were asleep or on the bridge.

I’m sorry for the loss of life, and I’m glad I wasn’t there, but the Tower controller didn’t have control of the throttles or the brakes on that jet.  Only the aircrew did, and that’s where the responsibility lies.  Period.


  1. This story says the captain and first officer also first boarded and turned on the power in the wrong plane. It will be interesting to see their drug tests.

  2. Agreed that primary responsibility lies with the flight crew. But remember that NTSB and FAA try to focus on systems failures and not individual errors. Maybe better taxiway diagrams and signage would help — I have a devil of a time navigating by the signage even in the day and at airports I am familiar with. Very possibly a controller dedicated to ground control would have said “Hey guys, you’re not gonna try to use that runway, are you?”

  3. I also understand that the one ATC employee on scene had only 2 hours of sleep before he came on duty. Just like in medicine and driving, exhaustion can be a killer.

  4. Steven M. Vandiver says:

    You are absolutely correct. The PIC is just that, and adjudication of commercial air traffic incidents follows admirality law. The very fact that the professional aircrew earlier boarded the wrong airplane indicates that they weren’t functioning well, even as a team. Several common sense, very common pre-takeoff checks are, “flight controls free and correct” (the test pilot of one of the new VLJs was killed recently when the controls were re-rigged improperly and he didn’t identify this condition prior to takeoff), “fuel sufficient for the flight”, and “compass heading agrees with assigned runway”. In the case of your comment, neither pilot verified the latter. Strange also is the fact that this type aircraft would have had a flight director and the command bars should have indicated a turn during the takeoff roll. I am sure this accident will be used as a teaching tool at Flight Safety and elsewhere. Let’s be careful in our airplanes.