Terry Meiners: It was Pilot Error

08/28/2006: Louisville radio personality Terry Meiners of WHAS–who has been a private pilot for 20 years–is reflecting exactly what I was suggesting: it was pilot error, calling it “a horrible mistake”.

When pilots are given takeoff runway instructions, Meiners makes note of:

(1) the “heading bug” that the pilot places on the compass; this allows the pilots a reference point to ensure that they are on the proper heading when they take off.

(2) the checklists that the crew perform at each point of the takeoff process. From before taxiing, during taxiing, and before takeoff roll.

(3) That the controller didn’t catch the error may be irrelevant. Sometimes, a pilot will go into takeoff roll–without stopping–as soon as the plane is on the runway. In the case of flight 5191, had the crew done this there would have been no chance for the controller to warn the crew due to the shortened runway, as the window for aborting the takeoff was probably less than five seconds.

These are standard items on which everyone from private pilots to experienced commercial pilots are drilled. And the ComAir crew had plenty of experience and skill; they were flying a twin-engine jet aircraft. Only the best pilots get a chance to fly jet airplanes.

“[How both pilot and co-pilot failed to see their errant heading] is mind-boggling.”

Sadly, lots of experience–coupled with fatigue at early-morning hours–can lead even the best pilots to cut corners with checklists. These pilots were probably very good professionals who just plain screwed up.

In my job–as an information technology professional–even a very bad mistake is relatively harmless: no one goes to the hospital; no one dies; the worst that can happen is professional embarassment (loss of job), and even then I’d have to do something egregiously wrong.

In the case of aviation, however, Newtonian physics puts you behind the 8-ball. As Warwick at 3NailsMinistries said, “the Law of Gravity has not been repealed.” Neither have Newton’s First or Second Laws of motion for that matter. Aviation can be unforgiving of otherwise innocuous mistakes.

That’s why pilots have checklists.

Ultimately, I’d say we will see three things happen as a result of this:

(1) Bluegrass Airport will ensure that at least two controllers are in the tower at all times
(2) There will be a push for electronic warning systems, in the event of improper runway selection.
(3) There will be a renewed push on pilots to execute their checklists.

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