Runway Manners

Avoiding before-takeoff and after-landing dangers

August 1, 2005

It is a well-known, well-documented statistic that the most dangerous realms of flight are the takeoff and the approach and landing phases. This makes sense. During takeoff, the airplane is operating at relatively low speeds and at a higher-than-normal angle of attack. During the approach, the airplane is at a relatively slow speed, and the configuration is such that the flight will be in the most drag-intensive configuration possible, or very nearly so. As a result, the maneuverability and response during a critical phase of flight are compromised. When something goes wrong during a takeoff or a landing, not only are you close to the ground with little room for recovery, but also your reaction time may be several seconds, during which the situation only deteriorates.

But what about that time when you are on the ground, say, the time you start to taxi until you roll onto the runway for takeoff and the time after you land until you shut down the airplane? These are two overlooked, but potentially dangerous, parts of any flight.

ASF Courses

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation offers both a Safety Advisor and the Seminar-in-a-Box program on the topic of takeoffs and landings. The "Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings" safety seminar and Safety Advisor are available online and the Seminar-in-a-Box program can be ordered online as well ( www.asf.org).

Let's start with what can go wrong prior to takeoff. The most obvious situation that must be avoided is to taxi onto a runway with an airplane on short final. In a high-wing airplane this is all too easy to do because the reduced visibility may only encourage you to continue, especially if for some reason you are unable to hear the fellow on landing yelling at you on the radio. This usually results in a go-around and an exchange of words later on the ground.

But this problem is not unique to the smaller strips of the world. At airports with control towers, controllers make liberal use of the ability to tell an aircraft to taxi into position and hold. The controllers are required to advise the departing aircraft of traffic on final, and each airport has its own comfort level for following the rule for how close the landing traffic can be when they allow the position-and-hold procedure to be used. From the cockpit, being the guy on final is not a big deal, especially if the weather is severe clear; there comes a time when you just have to accept a go-around if the tower doesn't proactively give it to you, usually when you descend below 1,000 feet. On the other hand, if you sit on the runway for a while, knowing there is traffic behind you that you can't see, you can get some very uneasy feelings, especially at night. A position-and-hold clearance on a runway being used for landings requires extra vigilance and situational awareness.

Once, I was landing in White Plains, New York, on Runway 34 on a clear, busy Saturday morning. In front of us a Mooney landed, and the tower cleared a Gulfstream V business jet to taxi into position and to be ready for an immediate takeoff. The pilots in the Gulfstream V missed the takeoff clearance, and the controllers, busy with other traffic, were slow to realize that the jet was still on the runway. When we got to the point where the Gulfstream V could no longer initiate a takeoff and clear the runway in time for us, we started a go-around, and because of all the traffic in the pattern, we missed two separate aircraft by less than 500 feet. Needless to say, the tower had some words for the Gulfstream-V crew.

Something that does not happen often, but can happen, is a runway change while taxiing for departure. You may or may not know the reason for the change, but this can lead to two distinct problems. For the IFR pilot, there may be a dramatic change in the standard instrument departure procedure. For either the VFR or the IFR pilot, there also may be a change in the departure frequency to use after takeoff. Most of the time, controllers are very good about advising you of the frequency change, but if they are busy or in a hurry, they may forget. So may you. Most of the time, it won't be a big deal, especially if you review and are prepared for the new departure procedure before takeoff; in that case, you'll get the new frequency in flight and change it accordingly. But sometimes, in a rush, you will be fumbling around trying to fly, and the distraction is just not one that you need. You may not find out until airborne that you not only got an unexpected frequency change but a new heading to fly that you missed as well.

Along a similar vein is initiating a takeoff roll when only cleared to position and hold. The real threat here is at an airport with intersecting runways. Traffic you may not be aware of may be departing or landing on the intersecting runway, and you may have an accident waiting to happen. The same thing can happen at a nontowered field if the runway is sloped and you don't see an airplane ahead of you that is still on your runway, or on a crossing runway. The scenario that I have seen the most occurs with an airplane crossing a runway in use while another is taking off. Vigilance is key.

Takeoffs require some attention inside the airplane. At some point before rotation, you should take a look to verify that engine instruments are normal and the airspeed indicator is working. Twice in a jet and once in a turboprop I had to do a high-speed rejected takeoff because one of the airspeed indicators failed. It might be something as simple as a covered pitot tube or bug in the line, but it may be something more serious. If you have any backup instruments in your airplane, you should use them to crosscheck. Don't confuse a quick glance inside the cockpit during takeoff with a normal scan. This one takes less than a second, because your primary job is to safely steer an aircraft that is not only accelerating, but also accelerating at an accelerating rate. The point is to notice any problems well before your rotation speed to ensure a safe abort on the available runway.

The rollout after landing poses its own challenges. Over the years, some tower controllers have developed a very bad habit that drives pilots crazy. The rollout after landing can be one of the busiest, most work-intensive phases of flight. The airplane may still be settling on the wheels, the wind may be causing the tail to weathervane, and you may be working the brakes to meet the happy medium of a smooth arrival and an expeditious clearing of the runway. At just this time, the controller will start barking instructions about which exit point he or she wants you to use, the taxi instructions, and the ground frequency. Then, if you don't answer fast enough, he or she may call you back and sound rather annoyed, making you feel rushed. Don't forget who is flying the airplane here. If there is any doubt about anything in your mind, make the next, safest available taxiway. Don't feel so pressured that you slam the brakes and do a wheelie on the nosewheel. Not all controllers are pilots, and they forget that your job is to fly first and communicate last. If you don't feel comfortable trying to clear at a certain taxiway, especially one that is not a designated high-speed taxiway, then don't. If the guy behind you has to go around, so be it; besides, we can all use the practice.

An area of great debate over the years is the validity of doing touch-and-go landings. Without a doubt, touch and goes save a lot of time and money by cutting out the taxi back to the departure end of the runway. On the other hand, there are a lot of things that can go wrong during touch and goes. In no particular order you can: go off the side of the runway; grab the gear handle instead of the flap handle, leading to a (very expensive) belly slide; forget to raise the flaps, which may lead to a very dangerous takeoff attempt that includes a stall; go off the end of the runway; raise the flaps to the wrong setting; or ground loop a taildragger. Personally I am not in favor of extensive touch-and-go landings, but I do believe that all pilots should be exposed to them. It is only fair that pilots new to the maneuver be thoroughly briefed prior to the flight in order to understand what to expect and what, if any, personal preferences the instructor may have. During the rollout is no time to be arguing over how to reconfigure the airplane from a landing to a takeoff configuration.

Unlike during a takeoff, there is usually very little that the average pilot needs to see on the instrument panel during a landing rollout. Attention should be outside the aircraft in order to maintain directional control. After all, you are on the ground to stay, so indication problems can wait. This is where a touch and go gets tricky, because you are performing a landing and a takeoff simultaneously, and decisions must be made quickly, especially the decision to just stop on the runway if something isn't right.

Takeoffs and landings are two very different and very busy times of flight, and sometimes, because of their short duration, we forget just what can go wrong. It would behoove all of us to take the time to put a little thought in the events that take place while we are on the runway.


Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet captain for Comair.