Flight 5191 copilot and sole survivor talks about crash

By: Sam Dick - Email
By: Sam Dick - Email
Flight 5191 first officer and sole survivor Jim Polehinke and his wife Ida

Flight 5191 first officer and sole survivor Jim Polehinke and his wife Ida

"There are a lot of why questions that are not answered and will probably never get answered," said Jim Polehinke, the first officer and sole survivor of the crash of Comair flight 5191.

In the more than five and a half years since the crash that killed 49 passengers and crew at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, Polehinke has never talked publicly about the 2006 crash.

"The accident again is as fresh as it was yesterday," Polehinke said while being interviewed aired on WKYT. The interview was for the documentary "Sole Survivor" which will be released in the fall. The film documents the world's 14 sole survivors of commuter plane crashes.

"Jim will be the first person to shoulder the responsibility for his part in it," said Chicago filmmaker Ky Dickens who convinced Polehinke and his wife Ida to open their home and lives to the documentary.

"It was probably even a year before Jim and I even started rolling cameras," Dickens said to WKYT's Sam Dick. "It was a lot of phone conversations. A lot of hand written letters even. It was building trust. It was building friendship."

Polehinke and his wife Ida now live in Colorado. But a new home and new surroundings can't erase the memories of that day.

"I have an article that The Kentucky Herald [The Herald-Leader] had published that shows faces of the people were onboard. It gives profiles," said Jim Polehinke.

"He kept that article with all the pictures of the people's faces and their profiles under his chair," added his wife Ida. "And he knows each person, their faces, and their names and what they did, where they were going."

"There are things he wants to say to the victims' families," said Dickens. "There are things that he wants to say about his perspective of what happened."

The documentary has two main storylines: Polehinke and George Lamson who was the sole survivor of a 1985 airline crash that killed 70 people as it left Reno, Nevada, for Minneapolis.

"George was a passenger who ended up being a sole survivor and Jim was obviously a pilot who ended up being a sole survivor," said Dickens. "And I think we really can understand survivorship in a very comprehensive by looking at someone who was in control versus someone who just happened to survive."

In video from the film released to WKYT, he is seen at his home in Colorado. Following the crash, Polehinke lost the use of both his legs. One of his legs was amputated.

"So being part of such a unique, small, perplexing group," said Dickens. "You can imagine that it helps a lot of heel if you can relate your experience to someone else's experience because that's just human nature."

While headed down the wrong runway, he and flight Captain Jeffrey Clay noticed something strange. There were no lights and the runway ended before the plane could be airborne.

After awaking from a coma, Polehinke learned the horrific news. He was the flight's only survivor and would never walk again while also facing the reality that he was one of the pilots at the helm of flight 5191.

Even during their investigation, federal officials never talked to Polehinke whose doctor told the National Transportation Safety Board at the time was "medically unfit" to be interviewed.

Eleven months later, the NTSB determined the probably cause was "the pilots' failure to use available cues and aids to identify the airplane's location and to cross-check and verify that the airplane was on the correct runway before takeoff."

Polehinke and his wife moved to Colorado from Florida because his wife felt Colorado had more activities disabled persons, according to Dickens.

"First of all, he would have rather died," said his wife Ida in a clip from the film. "His conviction as a pilot was so great that he would have rather gone down with the ship. And that is how he felt. His heart was always with the passengers and never ever with himself. It is such an emotional cross that he bears that no one really sees but me. I wish we could convey that. And he would have given anything to have gone with all of them rather than sitting here today doing this."

"In the film, we see Jim's emotion," said the filmmaker. "We get to know Jim quiet intimately. In the interviews, it is very difficult for Jim to talk about. It is very difficult for him to keep his composure, and Ida is able to articulate some of the things that are very difficult for him to say. It's a prison that he will be in forever and maybe it will lessen through time. Who knows? But it is something that he thinks about everyday."


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