Ground encounters

January 1, 1997

The issue of how to operate safely on the ground at nontowered airports was raised again in November with the collision between a regional airliner and a Beech King Air in Quincy, Illinois. According to preliminary reports, the airliner, a Beech 1900, had just touched down and was on the rollout. It collided at the intersection of a crossing runway with the King Air, which was beginning its takeoff run. Although the accident occurred at dusk, weather was not a factor; and while the investigation proceeds, it is premature to discuss probable cause. It is, however, a good opportunity to review procedures, as most of general aviation is based at nontowered airports.

There is good news because literally millions of safe operations are conducted annually at the nation's 12,458 nontowered airports, so the concept absolutely works. Only 687 airports — or about five percent — have control towers. However, politics are sometimes brought into the safety arena, which makes for good sound bites but generally bad regulation. Despite a statistically excellent record, we can improve our efforts to prevent tragedy and unwanted scrutiny by a sensation-driven media.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation looked at runway incursion accidents involving light fixed-wing aircraft over the last five years. On average, there were five per year, and out of the 25 that did occur, only 12 percent — or three accidents — involved fatalities. Twenty percent occurred at towered airports. When put into perspective, it is a minute part of the general aviation accident picture, at less than one-third of one percent.

When looking at the FAA's reports, however, we find that the number of runway incursions reported, primarily by FAA tower controllers, was significantly higher (247 during 1995). This included vehicles, as well as all types of aircraft. We were unable to find statistics for nontowered incursions that did not result in an accident. So the potential for problems does exist; fortunately, however, not all the links in the accident chain come together very often. There is an element of luck that applies in all transportation accident avoidance, but it's poor form to depend on it.

Staying out of harm's way is not always as intuitive as it seems. The use of taxi charts is helpful to transient pilots in finding the way to or from the runway. These are part of every instrument pilot's chart kit, but many of the incursions occur during VFR conditions. Consider an airport guide, or if you can afford it, actual IFR approach charts, to enhance your ability to navigate on the ground.

The use of the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) can be of significant value when used properly. The use of proper phraseology and proper timing in self-announcing your actions can go a long way to preventing close encounters or direct contact, but it is not a panacea. As many old timer CFIs will grumble, looking around — whether in the pattern or on the ground — is essential. We have all heard the radioholic who gives us his life story on the CTAF, blocks the frequency, and still gets too close to another aircraft because his mouth was open and his eyes were shut.

In the Quincy accident there was some confusion about whether the King Air made a statement about moving into position and holding on the crossing runway. While we don't yet know the specifics in this case, it is an act of faith to do this at a nontowered airport, and we recommend waiting until the runway is clear before positioning on the active. It will come out in the accident investigation if such a statement was made and if the pilot elected not to announce his departure.

Aircraft operating without radios do create challenges and we must be careful to watch for them. Likewise, pilots of "no radio" (nordo) aircraft should follow procedures scrupulously and be prepared to go to plan B if someone overlooks them. We strongly encourage nordos to consider getting at least a handheld transceiver if they will be operating at busy nontowered fields.

There are problems with CTAFs in busy areas. Too many airports may be on the same frequency; Saturday afternoons become a cacophony of squeals, interruptions, and irrelevant chatter as two or more aircraft try to use the frequency simultaneously. ASF has recently discussed this with the Federal Communications Commission, and some improvement may be possible. Not everyone is pleased with the frequency reassignment option because it requires changes in longstanding habits and could result in some initial confusion, but the long-term benefits could well outweigh short-term inconveniences.

At some airports, topography creates a problem where the opposite end of the runway or a crossing runway intersection may not be visible. This creates an obvious hazard and appropriate caution is needed.

Any time there are two or more aircraft moving on an airport, the possibility for an inadvertent encounter increases. There have been numerous taxi accidents in which one pilot was preoccupied in the cockpit with the checklist or configuring for departure and the other aircraft tried valiantly to get out of the way. Alas, our nimble flying machines are real slugs on the ground, and with 25- or 30-plus feet of wingspan, they are unwieldy at best. Tailwheel aircraft with limited forward visibility are particularly susceptible to taxi incidents.

One item that may come out in the Quincy accident is that in certain phases of flight, takeoff or landing, an aircraft is exceedingly vulnerable. At the point of touchdown there is still enough energy to go around if decisions are made quickly and accurately; once the aircraft begins to decelerate, however, it can no longer fly or stop quickly — you are committed to that runway for at least another thousand feet, more or less, depending upon the aircraft. The same thing can be said about takeoff. Get to a certain point and it's not ready to fly yet, but it won't stop well, either. If a solid object gets in the way, steering into the rough may not work. The concept of inertia that my high school physics teacher tried so hard to explain, using all manner of devices, was sadly demonstrated in Illinois.

One of the nice things about runways is that they can be used in either direction, but this is the grand opening for Murphy's Law. Calm winds lead to questions of "interpretation." Which runway should be used? No one gets the wrong one when the winds are whistling out of the northwest at 15 knots gusting to 25. But there is temptation, both in the air and on the ground, to take little shortcuts that usually will make no difference. A straight-in approach will save time, or it's only a short taxi from the FBO to the end of the nearest runway. Put aircraft on the opposite ends of the same runway or on a crossing runway and things can get interesting in a hurry.

At nontowered airports it is the pilot's discretion that determines which runway to use, and with good reason. Who's responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft? It's not the unicom operator or the pilot of another aircraft. There are plenty of cases when the "active" may not be chosen. Heavier, faster aircraft frequently will take a longer runway with more crosswind than the shorter one that is being used by lighter aircraft. To become better neighbors, more airports are developing noise-abatement procedures that may occasionally conflict with the pilot's needs.

In marginal VFR weather, the instrument runway is often preferred by arriving IFR flights, as it results in less maneuvering and reorientation close to the ground. Light local VFR traffic and IFR transients occasionally will have a difference of opinion. The FAA has left it up to the pilot in command with a few general guidelines that can be found in the Aeronautical Information Manual. There will be differences of opinion, and errors will be made — some deliberate and some inadvertent. With a little tolerance and common sense most disagreements can be worked out amicably and safely. Watch this space, because we'll soon be taking on everyone's favorite topic, VFR traffic patterns. To provide a little more guidance, the Air Safety Foundation has just published a new Safety Advisor on operations at nontowered airports; it is available by calling 800/USA-AOPA or on AOPA's Internet site.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.