Safety Pilot: Report from the runways

May 1, 2008

Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

A Grumman AA5 (Traveler) had just landed on the outboard parallel runway and the tower instructed the pilot to hold short of the inboard parallel runway before taxiing to the ramp. The pilot acknowledged the hold short, but failed to stop upon reaching the inboard parallel. A Beech 99 regional airliner on landing rollout swerved to miss the Traveler by a scant 10 feet. Category A runway incursion!

The tower issues a touch-and-go clearance to a Piper Cherokee on downwind to Runway 31. The tower then issues takeoff clearance to a regional jet on Runway 4. As the RJ rolls, another unidentified Cherokee also rolls on Runway 31. The tower instructs the Cherokee to stop, but there is no response and, in desperation, tells the Cherokee to keep it low through the intersection. No response. The RJ misses the Cherokee by 100 feet vertically and 50 feet horizontally. Category A runway incursion!

There are literally pages of incidents on recent near-collisions that have resulted from general aviation pilots just not paying attention to the most critical thing at the time—staying clear of runways when they’re occupied. Everybody knows how to taxi and how to respond to ATC instructions—mostly. Unfortunately, a bad incursion has the potential to become the ground equivalent of Cerritos, California. For those who aren’t familiar, a Cherokee penetrated a TCA (now Class B) without clearance and collided with an Aeromexico DC-9 over Cerritos (see “ Safety Pilot Landmark Accidents: Collision Over Cerritos,” January 2001 AOPA Pilot). There were massive fatalities on both aircraft and on the ground. The negative media attention and public outcry resulted in significant regulatory, airspace, and procedural changes that were not GA friendly.

Statistics published by the FAA’s Office of Runway Safety in September 2007 noted that 82 percent of Category A and B incursions involved at least one GA aircraft. Category A is defined as “participants take extreme action to narrowly avoid a collision.” Category B denotes “a significant potential for collision.” The report also shows that GA flights accounted for 55 percent of the National Airspace (NAS) activity, yet were involved in 72 percent of the incursions.

For fiscal year 2003 through 2006, GA aircraft were involved in 98 out of 120 Category As and Bs—the 82 percent cited above—but that number is somewhat misleading. If we look at pilot deviations (PD), the area where pilots are responsible, the number drops to 49. Fifty percent of the GA problem appears to be GA pilots and the rest is split between air traffic control and vehicles or pedestrians. As far as PDs go, we are about in line with our NAS activity.

Looking at all GA PDs, from really bad to minor, the average is 140 per year until 2006, when it jumped to 159. That works out to about 12 per month and there’s just no way to turn that into a positive. If your eyes haven’t glazed over yet, allow me one more statistic—there’s roughly one serious deviation every 3 million or so flight operations. These are low-probability, high-consequence events, like so much of aviation safety. It’s hard to stay focused on something that may never happen, yet—if ignored—the consequences can be deadly.

AOPA President Phil Boyer testified before Congress last winter on runway safety and what the GA community is doing to improve it. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has been at the forefront of runway safety for more than a decade. I’ve attended dozens of committee meetings, written articles, also testified before Congress, and ASF has invested hundred of thousands of your donor dollars for online courses, safety seminars, flash cards, and mailing out 140,000 DVDs, to get the word out. The FAA has conducted numerous programs and the commercial course suppliers have ramped up their emphasis, as have CFIs and pilot examiners giving checkrides. Whatever we’ve collectively done, it’s still not enough— regardless of when the accident headline comes, tomorrow or 20 years from now.

Three strikes

There are three parts to this safety equation. Ignorance, which is easily addressed with a little study—if you haven’t already taken ASF’s free online course, do it now. A growing number of airlines and air taxi operators now require their pilots to take the commercial version of our program. Complacency is much tougher to deal with because the pilot doesn’t perceive any problem until it’s too late. But let’s suppose you’re knowledgeable and diligent as most GA pilots are. Let’s slay the distraction dragon systematically and procedurally.

Acknowledge the need to backstop one another. In a flight crew environment, that is obvious and expected. The pilot observing checks and verifies the pilot flying. It doesn’t always work, as I’ll relate shortly, but there are ways to address that. Equally important is that pilots trust, but verify, ATC instructions.

A well-placed question can stop the accident chain. Yogi Berra’s quote, “You can observe a lot just by looking” couldn’t be truer than during taxi operations. Cleared onto a runway—look both ways. Cleared to cross a runway—ditto. The fatal ground collision accident at Sarasota, Florida, in March 2000 was tagged as an ATC error but two of the pilots involved could have prevented four deaths, including their own, just by clearing the runway before blindly following an ATC clearance (see “ Safety Pilot Landmark Accidents: Trust But Verify,” November 2003 AOPA Pilot).

The mantra to aviate, navigate, and communicate, in that order, not only applies to flight but especially to ground operations. There is no place in the sky with a greater concentration of aircraft than on the ground at an airport. There have been multiple wing tip bumps with the airlines in the news recently. Happens to GA as well. Who’s watching? Everyone. After the fact.

In the real world

Let’s review an almost-catastrophe at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A United Airbus A320 was told to taxi to Runway 9L. No problem, right turn on Delta, left on Bravo to the end. The captain was steering and one of the predeparture checks is to verify flight controls free and correct. Since the crew can’t see the control surfaces there is an in-cockpit display that requires the first officer to look down. Debriefing the incident, it appears that this check was run, distracting the crew, just as the Airbus was approaching taxiway Bravo where it needed to make a left turn.

A Delta Air Lines Boeing 757 on short final had been cleared to land. The United crew, apparently engaged in the cockpit, missed the turn, taxiing onto Runway 9L. The tower controller spotted the incursion and, while ground was directing United to stop, the local controller advised Delta to go around. It was a very nice piece of work. The Airbus stopped 30 feet from the centerline of 9L as the Delta 757 cleared United by less than 100 feet. This incident occurred during day VFR conditions but during night or instrument conditions where the Airbus wouldn’t have been so visible, the outcome might have been disastrous.

My intent is not to pick on the United crew. I’m sure that both pilots had never had anything like this happen in thousands of hours of flying and years in the cockpit as professional pilots. It just shows how distractions can become deadly. Fast forward to the Runway Safety Roundtable that the FAA called late last summer after yet another incident at Los Angeles. Everyone with a stake in the game was invited to help. We heard how a different airline has managed to greatly reduce the odds of an incursion.

Southwest Airlines does not run checklists or conduct nonessential company communications after they leave the ramp or before arriving at the gate after landing. The catering discussions, dispatch, and maintenance items that are a part of any airline operation are given full attention by the crew at the appropriate time but not when the aircraft is moving on the ground. The before-taxi checklist now also includes most of the before-takeoff checklist so the crew can devote 100-percent attention to that all-important first phase of the flight. The same applies in reverse on landing.

United Airlines has changed its procedures to emulate the Southwest approach. Does it slow things down slightly? Absolutely! Does it work in single-pilot operations to eliminate distraction on the ground? Yep! I’ve modified my checklists and procedure to not just programming the GPS and setting the avionics prior to leaving the ramp, but doing everything else, except the run-up, right there. The extra delay amounts to a few minutes at most. I can spare that much time to keep my reputation, GA’s reputation, and most important, my posterior intact.