Incursions R Us

GA pilots can make a huge dent in the problem because...

August 1, 2004

To borrow a quote from the old comic strip Pogo, "We have met the enemy and it is us." Here's a negative situation that needs a positive viewpoint: GA pilots are at the root of the runway incursion problem. Who says so? FAA statistics show that more than half of all runway incursions are caused by "pilot deviations," and nearly 70 percent of those pilots are "us" — general aviation pilots. At this writing there have been 13 of the more dangerous incursions (ones where evasive action had to be taken) nationwide in 2004, and nine of those involved GA pilots. Looking at it in a positive way, GA pilots can have more influence on the incursion problem than any other pilot category.

Most incursions are minor, such as when an airplane strays over the hold-short line by a foot and stops, yet an event like this must still be reported as an incident. The incursion starts when the nose of the airplane crosses the line, not the nosewheel as some pilots think. With just minor adjustments in the way we operate, there can be a drastic drop in the total yearly incursions. The payoff to you personally is the avoidance of an FAA investigation or worse. The penalties for an incursion range from those you'd expect, like the possible loss of a pilot certificate, to those you wouldn't, like an arrest record and $500 fine for so-called surface incidents (usually those involving pedestrians or ground vehicles) at Florida's Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. There may be other airports with local penalties as well. Hey, Fort Lauderdale officials had to do something to address a problem that in 2002 made it the number-one incursion airport in the nation. Although the fines are aimed at pedestrians and drivers, pilots still cause most incursions. On the day I called, Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport managers had just learned that they had slipped from fifth to ninth in the nation for runway incursions, an improvement thanks to anti-incursion efforts.

What are GA pilots doing wrong? Controllers and airport managers in several states say the leading cause of incursions is GA pilots who read back hold-short instructions but don't follow them. Airports with reputations for high incursion numbers typically have lots of intersecting taxiways and runways. Despite such complicated airport layouts, pilots aren't writing down taxi clearances.

A second cause stems from the fact that many of us don't know the signage and surface markings. Sure, we know most markings, but not all. High-incursion airports may use every surface marking and sign in the book, and frankly, some not in the book. The latter are additional markings invented by airport managers who are desperate to reduce their incursion totals.

A third cause is simply distraction, as in the case of a student at a large aeronautical university who taxied across a hold line for an active runway at North Las Vegas Airport in Nevada, despite previous hold-short instructions. When asked by the tower chief why he did that, the student said he was distracted by looking up his next frequency.

There are incursions and there are surface incidents. Only Category A and B incursions require pilot action or pose a serious risk of collision. Few surface incidents pose any risk at all, yet, like minor incursions, they are reported and investigated. A surface incident can be as minor as a pilot chasing a chart across an active taxiway at a towered airport in the blowing wind — with no aircraft anywhere nearby. It still counts, and you'll still have a chance to be investigated by the FAA, as you'll see: It happened in front of me while I was preparing this article.

Among controllers and airport officials interviewed at high-incursion airports, the universal recommendation is to have a taxi diagram out prior to either leaving the ramp or starting a landing approach. The airport layout looks simple from up in the tower, but from the ground it can be a rat maze. Airport taxi diagrams for towered airports from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation can be found on AOPA Online

An interactive Runway Safety Program just updated on AOPA Online by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation is an entertaining start toward avoiding incursion trouble. It even counts toward the FAA Wings proficiency program ( It is a challenging program, which is the positive way of saying I flunked its opening quiz. You'll be able to print out a graduation certificate after receiving a passing score.

National totals dropped from 407 incursions in 2001 to 339 in 2002 and 324 in 2003, according to the FAA. That appears to be good news, with this caveat: The most serious runway incursions increased in the months before this was written. In another category, operational errors (those by air traffic controllers) have consistently been higher than 1,000 per year for four years, but the more serious errors are decreasing. Among the top 10 worst incursion airports (or positively speaking, those airports best for studying incursions) four are GA airports and three of those are in California. The rest (according to March rankings) are the major airports in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Atlanta.

The runway-incursion competition is a game every airport wants to lose, but to better study the problem I asked FAA headquarters for the "winners." After checking the files, an FAA public affairs official nominated Buchanan Field in Concord, California, and Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport for this article. At the time, Concord was ranked second only to Los Angeles International Airport in incursions.

Have the taxi diagram out

From flight instructor Doug Draper, who teaches at Buchanan Field, in Concord, California, an airport with a reputation for incursions:

  • Have a taxiway diagram on your lap. (They're available free for towered airports on AOPA Online.)
  • Write down the taxi clearance and verify it.
  • If you get confused, ask for progressive taxi instructions.
  • When you stop at hold lines, position yourself to face the landing traffic.
Listen to the entire ATIS

From Buchanan Field (Concord, California) Air Traffic Manager Jason Ralph:

  • Listen to ATIS all the way through. There might be a note at the end about a closed taxiway.
  • Clear any special requests, like soloing a student, with controllers so they can provide special handling.
  • Ask the controller to repeat the entire taxi clearance if needed. It's less work than filing an incursion report.
Stay heads up

From North Las Vegas Airport Air Traffic Manager Michael Snyder:

  • Stay heads up once the aircraft moves, and stop before copying additional information.
  • Don't become complacent just because you're on the ground.
  • Ask questions before the incursion occurs, not afterward.
  • Back up the controller by looking both ways before crossing taxiways or entering runways.

A visit to Concord

After arriving in Concord I was told by one FAA official that the numbers had shifted and North Las Vegas Airport was the new winner, that turned out not to be true. North Las Vegas doesn't even make the nation's top-10 list when looking at current one-year totals. In 2000, yes, North Las Vegas had its problems — 37 incursions and surface incidents (21 were pilot deviations) — but that slipped to 15 in 2001, then eight the following year, and six in 2003. That year a Piper Malibu and a Piper Arrow were severely damaged and the pilots moderately injured in a collision at the intersection of two runways. North Las Vegas will be one of the first airports in the nation to install a raised runway-guard light system. The lights will be installed at 29 intersections and will add new in-pavement hold-line lights.

Whatever the national ranking may show, Concord has drastically reduced its incursions and incidents. The improvement at Concord may be because airport officials have doubled the runway and taxiway signage this year from 90 to 186 signs, and local pilots are more aware of the problem.

There hadn't been a pedestrian incident in three years at Concord until the day I visited the tower. I could clearly see a pilot walk across a taxiway to recover what he thought was his aircraft's pitot cover. Ironically, it was a red object mounted in the ground associated with an experimental program to reduce incursions. Tower chief Jason Ralph dispatched a vehicle with airport personnel to talk to the pilot. The taxiway is marked with a movement-area line and can't be entered without permission. A movement-area line can best be described as half a hold line — that is, it has one solid line and one dashed line while a hold line has two of each. Ralph later learned that the embarrassed pilot had laughed it off, promising never to do that again. No big deal, right?

Bigger than you think. Within 30 minutes Ralph had phoned Airport Operations Supervisor Kenton Coyle, and Coyle had briefed Director of Airports Keith R. Freitas. (Coyle and Freitas are enthusiastic pilots while Ralph is in the process of returning to pilot ranks through refresher training.) "The pilot didn't understand the airport markings," a frustrated Freitas said. By the next morning the incident appeared on the Oakland Flight Standards District Office's daily operations report. There will be an investigation, inspectors there said.

The Concord challenge

Concord has lots of opportunities for confusion: two sets of intersecting parallel runways. Taxiing in a rented Cessna 172 and accompanied by Pacific States Aviation Chief Pilot Doug Draper, I laid a large diagram of the airport on my lap as he suggested. "It's the only way to navigate an airport surface," he said, adding that I should stop and ask the controller anytime I might be confused. "The worst thing that's going to happen to a controller all day is that he might spill his coffee, but the pilot faces greater risks," Draper joked. The taxi diagram was prepared by the airport initially to inform pilots about noise-sensitive areas but is also helpful to prevent runway incursions.

As I began a tour of the airport hot spots, a common term nationwide and even in use on Jeppesen approach procedure charts, I saw unfamiliar surface markings and decided not to cross them without consulting Draper. Had Draper not been there, the correct action would have been to stop and ask ground control for clarification or ask for a "progressive taxi" that offers turn-by-turn guidance.

A serious incident at Concord in 2003 involved a student pilot practicing takeoffs and landings in a Cessna 150. The student landed without a clearance, surprising both the controller and the pilot of a Piper Seminole waiting to take off. The Seminole pilot at Runway 32R was facing in a direction that made it impossible to see the Cessna 150 behind him on final. (The pilot should have aimed his windscreen at the final approach course.) The 150 missed the Seminole by 50 to 100 feet. While the pilots were clearly at fault, Ralph said controllers did not notice the errant 150 and must shoulder part of the blame. In their defense, controllers can get very busy depending on the staffing situation of the tower. Trust but verify controller calls.

Ground Marker in testing

Concord is a testbed for an FAA research project designed to help busy airports serving large numbers of small aircraft, thanks to its reputation as a source of runway incursions. (Concord had 119,106 operations in 2003 and has 512 based aircraft.) Called Ground Marker, the system transmits an aircraft's position over the on-board marker beacon receiver common in GA aircraft.

Buried in the taxiways at a half-dozen locations on the airport are antennas that sense the presence of an aircraft. A transmitter unit with a voice-file library is then triggered to transmit the taxiway or runway location on 75 MHz. The transmitters have had power supply problems (few Concord pilots have actually heard the transmissions) so the demonstration was down for repair when I visited. The project has attracted entrepreneurs who can aid in the research. Frank and Rachel Hoffmann, both experimental-airplane enthusiasts at Concord, have invented a small receiver that they have offered to Ground Marker program managers. Their prototype cost only a few hundred dollars.

At the nation's largest airports, other FAA-sponsored systems are already credited with several "saves." They are known as Airport Surface Detection Equipment and the Airport Movement Area Safety System. The newest systems use a series of sensors around the airport to detect aircraft even if they are blocked from radar by buildings.

In addition to airport-based systems, Honeywell has developed an on-board system called Runway Awareness and Advisory System (RAAS) that is now entering the fleet. Honeywell official Ron Crotty, a GA pilot, and company pilot Markus Johnson brought the company's Beechcraft King Air C90 test aircraft to Concord for a demonstration.

RAAS rocks, for a price

The system depends on GPS and a database of airport layouts. First, the aircraft must be equipped with an enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) found in larger aircraft.

Until recent years airport surface data was correct for the exact location of runways, but not for taxiways. Precise taxiway data just wasn't available in pre-GPS days. The Honeywell system is a $17,300 add-on software program for two higher-end models of Honeywell EGPWS, and that means it is available mostly to airliners, regional airplanes, and the more expensive corporate jets. However, the company is considering offering it for lower-end Honeywell EGPWS computers, a move that would bring it down to the private twin-turboprop market.

RAAS uses on-board voice commands to provide location and runway, taxiway, and runway distance information when on the surface or when flying just above the airport. It handled the confusing array of taxiways and runways at Concord perfectly, but I later learned Johnson had tested it at Concord prior to my demonstration to ensure that it was working properly. What had not been tested was the database for Napa County Airport, California, so we tested it there as well. Again, it handled Napa's airport layout without any problems. After entering the active runway at Napa and intentionally holding there for an extended period of time, a computer-generated voice began to re-identify the runway. That action served as a reminder to the pilot as if to ask: "Do you want to be on this runway a long time without moving?" All pilots, RAAS-equipped or not, should query the tower if they have waited on an active runway for more than 90 seconds, according to the new AOPA Air Safety Foundation online incursion training program.

Upon arrival at Concord, Johnson got the tower's permission to briefly make an approach to Runway 1R instead of the assigned 1L, as a confused pilot might do. Even though the runways were only a few hundred feet apart, the system announced the runway name correctly. RAAS can also count down the runway distance remaining before the aircraft has landed, based on the airplane's approach speed — something that would help prevent overshoots of the kind that happened when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 ran off the end of a runway at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, in March 2000.

RAAS even knows when an aircraft is attempting to take off from a taxiway such as might happen in extremely foggy conditions. After first consulting with the Tower, Johnson accelerated the King Air on a Concord taxiway as though starting a takeoff run. At a groundspeed of 40 knots the system urgently warned, "On taxiway!"

At my request, Johnson taxied the King Air up to the unusual angled hold line at Runway 32R to trigger an aural warning that he was approaching the runway. It sounded at the correct location, despite the angled line. He had stopped well short of the hold line, but Tower chief Ralph, along as an on-board observer, warned that turning back toward the ramp would extend the right wing tip over the hold line. No part of the aircraft can cross the line without permission from the tower. Johnson put the propellers in reverse thrust and backed up, given that we had not only the FAA tower chief aboard but also FAA Runway Safety Program manager for the Western Pacific Dave Kurner.

A simpler system

A system called ROWS (Runway Obstruction Warning System) by Patriot Technologies is in the second stage of testing at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Gulfport, Mississippi.

It uses a personal computer, a diagram of the airport, and sensing loops in the pavement to tell controllers when aircraft enter and depart runways and arrive at hold-short lines. A customized lighting system may be included for pilots.

Costing less than $1 million, the system uses simple and proven technology and has impressed airport officials.

White on red, you're dead

Kurner reemphasized the leading cause of incursions: "The majority of our minor runway incidents by GA pilots come from pilots who read back hold-short instructions and then blow right across the hold line," said Kurner. He came up with this handy rule of thumb for understanding runway signage.

"If it's yellow on black, it's telling you where you are. It's a location sign. If it's black on yellow, it's giving you an instruction about a taxiway or runway coming up. If it's white on red, there's a mandatory action required. Don't just blow by a white-on-red sign. If you are confused, stop," Kurner said. He is offering a packet of runway information to AOPA members that can be requested over the Internet, including signage diagrams. Visit the Web site ( and click on Runway Safety Packets from the menu on the left side of the screen.

"Even if you have been flying for 100 years, pull out the runway markings and review them from time to time," Kurner said.

At the point the aircraft begins rolling on the ramp, you should consider having a sterile cockpit, just as you would when making an approach. Each phase of flight is equally important. Learning signage, writing down complicated taxi clearances, stopping to ask for clarification, and avoiding distractions during taxi will make you a better pilot — which is the positive way of saying you'll get busted if you don't.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.