As a pilot, I am both saddened and confused by news of the crash of Conair fligth 5191 from Lexington Blue Grass airport this morning. The lastest news reports seem to indicate that the airplane took off from the wrong runway, the short, 3,500 ft runway instead of the 7,500 ft runway.
This is what confuses me. Air traffic controllers will tell a commercial aircraft which runway they should use. Controllers know the types of aircrafts and their capabilities. For a controller to make an error like this is very, very unusual. Even so, the pilot has the right to decline any instructions that he or she deems unsafe. The type of aircraft taking off, anywhere between 4,500 – 5,000 ft of runway would have been required if the aircraft was as full weight. For the pilot not to decline the instruction to take off on the short runway is even more confusing. Finally, unlike the small airplanes that I flew, most commercial planes also have a co-pilot. Even if the controller and the pilot missed the error, there was a third person who could have stepped in to stop it.
This was an early flight, so perhaps the tower was not yet operational. Still, the decision to use the short runway was a bad one. Perhaps the winds were not favorable to using the longer runway. At worst there would have been a direct crosswind, but it shouldn’t have mattered. If weather was a factor, the flight should have remained on the ground until it was safe.
Most of the facts are not yet in, and so I suspend judgement for now. However, all pilots are taught “ADM”: aeronautical decision-making. Taking off an a runway clearly too short for the aircraft is a bad decision. I feel terrible for the families who lost loved ones on the flight. From the initial reports, it looks as though better decision-making could have prevented it. But we’ll have to wait and see.