Never Again Online: Runway incursion of the worst kind

April 1, 2005

Back in the early 1970s, before runway incursions were a notable and common problem, I experienced my worst close call. After returning home from military service, I applied for the GI Bill, and I obtained my airplane flight instructor certificate. I returned to the flight school where I had learned to fly and received a job flying Piper Colts. Shortly thereafter I moved up to the modern and nimble, all-metal Cessna 150 and was much happier in that airplane. Had I been flying a Colt when this incident took place, I don't believe my student and I would be alive today.

My student had just arrived in the Chicago area from Pittsburgh and was looking for a local checkout. This beautiful and busy Saturday was his second flight at Palwaukee Municipal Airport, about 25 miles northwest of Chicago. In those days Palwaukee had parallel runways 12/30, and runways 12L and 12R were active, along with the longer Runway 16, which was used by faster and heavier aircraft. Runway 16 intersects Runway 12L, then Runway 24, and finally crosses Runway 12R. My student was at the controls, and we had been doing touch and goes in right traffic to 12R. For some reason when the tower told a Grumman Gulfstream I, "Cleared to land 16, hold short of 12L," it caught my attention. As we turned on final in our 150, the Gulfstream was touching down on the 5,000-foot-long runway and had 3,450 feet until stopping before Runway 12L, which he had acknowledged to hold short of. However, he didn't stop but continued through Runway 12L. The tower then told the G-1 to hold short of Runway 24 — he acknowledged once again, but again, like the Energizer Bunny, he kept on going. As the G-1's nose section was starting across our runway, the tower gave him an emergency stop, which he actually managed to do, but the airplane's momentum placed the two-story tail section directly in the middle of our runway, just as our little 150's mains were touching down.

On short final, I was watching and listening to the tower as the G-1 kept coming. I kept expecting him to stop short, especially after he acknowledged each instruction. My student was completely oblivious of his surroundings and was just concentrating on making a perfect landing. However, when we touched down and were looking up, the G-1's rudder seemed to fill our windscreen (which I can still see to this day). I said, "I got it." We had about 300 feet before we reached his massive rudder. I knew I couldn't stop, and I still had flying speed, so I gave it full throttle and started banking to the left and watched my left wing tip so it wouldn't hit the ground. Somehow we made it around that great whale of a tail. I got on the tower frequency and used some pretty rich expletives. The tower then told me to switch to the ground control frequency (I guess they didn't want my expressive anger to get very far on the tower frequency). They told me to continue in right traffic and cleared us to land, and apologized profusely. We landed and taxied in. My boss, who was in the office and monitoring the tower frequency, called the tower when we got to the office, and raised a fuss. Again the tower apologized for not watching the G-1 more closely. As I said, it was a busy Saturday, and they were expecting pilots, especially professional pilots, to comply with instructions. Professionals or students, we should never make assumptions.

As it turned out, nothing happened to the pilot at that time, because we didn't file a written complaint. I thought the tower would have written up the G-1, but that didn't happen. The tower later told us that the pilot said he didn't have to stop for "those little planes." A month later, the same pilot was involved in a similar incident, and the airport told the company that either the pilot or the company had to go. The company fired the pilot. So I guess what goes around comes around. I'm just glad no one was hurt, especially us.

Since then I always tell my students to listen to all tower instructions and try to keep track of all the aircraft in the area and on the frequency. Their lives could depend on it, and it sometimes pays to listen to those little voices.

Lou J. Wipotnik, AOPA 182439, is an airline transport pilot and multiengine flight instructor with more than 12,000 hours.

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Posted Thursday, April 07, 2005 4:13:46 PM