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Voice Cockpit Recorder Revealed Both Pilots Broke the “Sterile Cockpit” Rule

ABC news reported tonight that the voice cockpit recorder revealed that both pilots broke the “sterile cockpit” rule. The rule requires that pilots not engage in any non-essential communications during the crucial parts of the flight, including takeoff. The pilots can be heard discussing families, their schedules and another pilot who received a promotion. They can also be heard discussing how strange it was there were no lights on the runway. The ABC news report discussed that the lone air traffic controller has changed his original statement. According to the report, the controller first said he watched the plane taxi to the correct runway. He has now retracted that statement and said he did not see the plane taxi to the runway. The story also reports that the controller was communicating with three planes at once. Here is the complete story: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 Comair says pilots broke cockpit rules By James R. Carroll jcarroll@courier-journal.com The Courier-Journal MULTIMEDIA ATC Communications audio (MP3) / Media/tower transcript (PDF) ATC Phone Call to Fire and Rescue audio (MP3)* / Transcript (PDF) * conversation begins 6 minutes, 30 seconds into tape. WASHINGTON – The flight crew of the Comair jet that crashed Aug. 27 broke federal rules barring pilots from talking about matters unrelated to the flight during moments leading to takeoff, the airline said Wednesday. The transcript of the cockpit conversation between Capt. Jeffrey Clay and First Officer James Polehinke showed that as the plane left the gate at the Lexington airport, the two men were talking about their families and schedules. Four minutes before the crash, as Flight 5191 was taxiing, the crew was discussing another pilot’s new job. The aircraft was cleared to taxi onto the correct runway, but ended up on the airport’s shorter runway, which was not long enough for the jet’s takeoff. Moments later, the plane tried to take off and crashed in trees off the end of the runway. Forty nine people aboard died, with Polehinke as the lone survivor. Federal regulations prohibit flight crews from, among other things, “engaging in nonessential conversations within the cockpit” during critical phases of flight, which include “all ground operations involving taxi, takeoff and landing.” “The transcript does make it clear the crew did not follow Comair’s sterile cockpit policy,” said airline spokeswoman Kate Marx. “Our policy does comply with FAA regulations.” But, she said, “while pilots did not follow the sterile cockpit policy, it is premature to make conclusions regarding the role it may have played in the accident.” “Comair has and will continue to emphasize the importance of the sterile cockpit both in our training program and in communications to our flight crews,” Marx said. “Comair is committed to understanding all the safety issues surrounding this accident and we will take whatever steps necessary to ensure safe operations for our customers and our employees.” Chicago aviation lawyer David Rapoport said the sterile cockpit rule is intended to keep the flight crew focused on operating the plane. “Non-pertinent discussions – B.S.-ing in plain language – is distracting and has the potential for distraction,” he said. “This crash may be a very good example why its so important that the rule get enforced better.” The transcript is among the investigative files on the Aug. 27 jet crash in Lexington that the National Transportation Safety Board released Wednesday. The early-morning accident still is under investigation by the NTSB. Moments before the crash as the plane ran down the wrong runway, Polehinke commented that it was “weird” the runway lacked lights, the transcript says. “Dat is weird with no lights,” copilot James Polehinke said at 6:06:16 a.m., according to the transcript. “Yeah,” the pilot, Jeffrey Clay, replied at 6:06:18 a.m.“Whoa,” Clay said at 6:06:31 a.m.The sound of impact is less than two seconds later. The last sound recorded is from Clay, which the transcript says is an unintelligible exclamation at 6:06:35 a.m. The air traffic controller at Blue Grass Airport directed them to taxi to Runway 22, which is the runway designed for such a large plane. Polehinke acknowledges the plane will steer to Runway 22. The lone controller in the Blue Grass tower was handling two other flights while directing Comair Flight 5191, according to the transcript. At the same time that he cleared the Comair jet to taxi to Runway 22, he was directing an American Eagle flight for take off and talking to a SkyWest plane that was leaving, the transcript says. Another document shows the air traffic controller wrote after the crash that he saw the plane taxi to the correct runway, but later he changed that to say he had not been watching. “After the review of my original personnel statement, I did not watch Com191 take Ry. (Runway) 22,” controller Christopher Damron wrote in a statement that is part of the accident investigation file. “I saw Com191’s position on Twy (Taxiway) A, heading for Rwy 22. I then cleared Com191 for takeoff. I saw Com191’s lights turning toward Rwy 22. I turned around to do the traffic count, heard a crash and saw a fireball west of the airport,” he wrote. The documents do not explain why the controller changed his statement. Investigators have determined that the jet took off from the airport’s shorter, 3,500-foot runway, which is not designed to handle a plane of that size and weight. The jet was supposed to use the 7,000-foot runway. A week before the crash, the airport did some paving and changed the taxiway to the longer runway. The documents released Wednesday do not indicate whether federal investigators interviewed Polehinke, although summaries of other interviews are included. Neither agency plans to comment on the documents and the tape. The accident raised issues about proper airport signage and whether the control tower was adequately staffed. In November, an FAA review of airport signs and markings found that Blue Grass complied with federal standards. But the FAA admitted shortly after the crash that it violated its own policy by having only one controller instead of two on the midnight shift in Lexington. Nearly five months before the crash, an air traffic controller told Kentucky’s senators that the airport’s midnight shift had two in the tower “only when convenient to management.” “This is the FAA playing a scary game of politics and using safety as the trump card,” Faron Collins, then the vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in Lexington, wrote lawmakers on April 4, 2006.The Lexington accident also brought new congressional and media attention to controller staffing nationwide. Nearly 1,100 fewer air traffic controllers are guiding planes now than three years ago, even though flights are increasing, according to a project published in December by The Courier-Journal and Gannett News Service. The controllers’ union contends that some facilities are critically understaffed, causing flight delays and increasing the chances that overworked controllers could cause a fatal mistake.The controller force also is facing a wave of retirements. The number of controllers choosing to retire has exceeded FAA projections three years in a row, The Courier-Journal and Gannett found. That is putting more of the workload on less-seasoned controllers and trainees. FAA has said that a second controller at Lexington would not have made a difference in the Lexington accident because that controller would have been looking at radar, not the airport runways.The agency also says that most of the nation’s air traffic control facilities are adequately staffed and that it has a plan to deal with the retirements. Comair in October sued the airport and FAA, saying both made mistakes that led to confusion by the Comair pilots. Blue Grass Airport in December sued Comair, saying negligence and wrongful conduct by the airline and the flight crew were the only cause of the crash. Reporter James R. Carroll can be reached at (202) 906-8141. Check www.courier-journal.com for updates. 

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