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Reducing Runway Run-Ins

As pilots, we tend to think that the time we spend in the air is the most dangerous part of flying. Physiological studies show that, compared to those in other phases of flight, our stress levels are lowest while taxiing. But should we take ground operations so lightly?

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are monitoring an ever-increasing number of runway incursions - instances where two aircraft come into conflict either as a result of a controller error or, more frequently, as a result of a pilot putting his or her aircraft somewhere it should not be. And in fact, runways incursions have been the source of aviation's worst accidents and have cost hundreds of people their lives. The worst accident on record remains a runway incursion in Tenerife when two airliners collided.

As a professional flight instructor, I'm fond of learning from others' mistakes and of helping my students to do the same. As a result, some of the musts on my reading list come from NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System accounts. I freely admit that I like these accounts, because, unlike accident analyses, ASRS reports give me insight into what the pilot was thinking and doing that led to a problem. As a pilot, I can identify with another pilot's account and compare his or her thinking and actions to my own in a similar situation. After reading many of the current runway incursion accounts, I am inclined to believe that we pilots hold the key to eliminating many, if not all, runway incursions.

One cause of runway incursions is a lack of familiarity with the airport. This is more common at airports with multiple runways, intersecting runways or taxiways, and those with an unusual physical layout. But visual obstructions and illusions can cause problems even at airports with single runways and simple taxiways.

Think about how the pilot of this aircraft could have avoided an incursion: "Ground said taxi to Runway 14," the pilot wrote in an ASRS report. "I got on the taxiway and proceeded north toward Runway 14. [The airport's] runways intersect (Runway 14/32 and Runway 6/24). When I got to the intersection, I got on the active runway and started back-taxiing on Runway 14. I had missed the [taxiway] turn to get to the beginning of Runway 14."

Probably the best start to avoiding this kind of incident is to obtain runway diagrams of the airport. Publications such as AOPA's Airport Directory, available free to members both in printed format and online ( ), have excellent diagrams of airports when they are available. In addition, some airport diagrams are now included in the official Airport/Facility Directory. Many FBOs keep copies of one or more airport information publications, so you can look up your destination before departing for an unfam- iliar airport. If you are instrument rated, you know that airport diagrams are included in instrument approach publications as well. If you're like me and you don't want to carry the entire book, photocopy just the diagrams you will need for your trip or print them using AOPA Online.

At tower-controlled fields, you can ask for progressive taxi instructions, even if you have a diagram of the field at hand. Most controllers would rather tell you which way to turn than have to tell an arriving aircraft to go around because you are inadvertently occupying the runway. In addition, make sure you are alert for signs on both sides of taxiways. Be especially alert for hold-short lines or signs and runway signs. White runway markings will tell you that you've already strayed too far. If you find yourself unsure of your position, stop. Ask the tower to confirm your location, especially if you find yourself facing hold-short markings.

At nontowered fields, be especially alert for signs and pavement markings. Even better, before your taxi begins, ask the staff in the local FBO if there are any oddities along your taxi route. Local pilots are generally willing to point out their field's idiosyncrasies for visitors.

This brings up the questions of bad signs and faded pavement markings. What if you just can't find the sign or see the markings? We've all been to fields where the weeds are tall and the paint is worn and it's difficult to know where to hold. When you see conditions like this, you need to bring them to the attention of the airport authority and the FAA. The FAA even has a special form for such reports, the Safety Improvement Report (FAA Form 8740-5), which is available from your local Flight Standards District Office. Write down what you see, or don't see, and send a letter to the airport manager suggesting an improvement. File a Safety Improvement Report to alert the FAA, which can often help with funding for the improvement. If you bring a problem to the attention of airport authorities and discover that it has been fixed on your next visit to the airport, be sure to follow up with another note thanking the airport manager for correcting the problem.

Of course you should always have a pencil and paper in the cockpit. Not only can you use it to note problems, but you can also use it to copy down clearances - including taxi clearances. Here's an example of an ASRS report where the pilot could have used some notes: "The controller said to taxi on taxiways Lima, Whisky, Juliet, Runway 28, hold short of Runway 23L, and expected Runway 23R for departure. This is what we heard: Taxi northeast on taxiways Lima, Whisky, Run- way 28, Runway 23R, expect Runway 23R for departure. This is what we actually did: [Taxied] northeast on taxiway Lima, turned left on taxiway Whisky, crossed Runway 23L, and held short of Runway 23R."

Yikes! Unless you operated out of this airport on a regular basis and heard this taxi clearance all the time, how could you possibly hope to keep all that in your head while simultaneously operating an airplane? If you find yourself receiving complicated taxi instructions, write them down, read them back, and then carefully consult the airport diagram. Do all this before beginning to taxi. This might even be a good time for progressive taxi instructions.

The pilot who wrote this report summed it up nicely. "I feel that the contributing factors to this problem are: 1) that the controller gave us too many instructions all at once; 2) the taxiways are very hard to understand. Finally I think that I should have studied the diagram more and should have questioned the controller before proceeding any further."

While it's easy to find yourself straying into a potential runway incursion situation at an unfamiliar airport, that's not the only time you may get into trouble. Even pilots who know their way around an airport may find themselves in unfamiliar circumstances. For example, at my home base of El Paso International Airport, small aircraft are typically instructed to depart from Runway 8R/26L, while larger aircraft use either that runway or Runway 4/22. There's a logic to this arrangement as the FBOs are closer to Runway 8R/26L, and the terminal building is closer to Runway 4/22. In addition, even large aircraft are not visible from the tower when they are at the approach end of Runway 4. Furthermore, Runway 4/22 is 2,000 feet longer than Runway 8R/26L, which helps larger aircraft to handle the high density altitude environment. Nevertheless, maintenance, wind, and other circumstances sometimes make it necessary for even small aircraft to use Runway 4/22.

One day I listened to the radio with mild amusement as one of my students on a solo flight attempted to taxi to Runway 22, having never done so before. In spite of having an airport diagram in the airplane, he made two bad turns before deciding to use the magic words - student pilot. He received progressive taxi instructions from that point on.

Other pitfalls that can trap pilots who are familiar with an airport include construction, low visibility, and cockpit distractions. Consider this NASA ASRS report: "As we taxied from the ramp for takeoff, my new first officer was asking questions about the EFIS/FS, and I was explaining things about it as we were taxiing. During the explanation our taxi clearance was changed. The first officer read back the new clearance, but I was apparently more concerned about maintaining my train of thought and didn't really notice." The flight crew ended upon an active runway with no way to exit and arriving traffic. The pilot summed it up by saying, "The incursion could have been prevented by greater pilot attention during the taxi phase."

You don't have to be flying an airliner to take that advice to heart. Organize your cockpit for your flight and save things like using your checklist, tuning radios, and setting up navigation equipment for times when the airplane isn't in motion. Try to give your full attention to taxiing.

The same is true for taxiing clear of a runway after landing. I train my students to exit the runway as soon as possible, unless otherwise directed by air traffic control. I also teach them to make sure the entire aircraft is beyond the hold-short line before they stop to do things like retract the flaps, tune the radio to the ground control frequency, etc. Hopefully, this will prevent them from inadvertently lingering on the runway and the potential embarrassment of reaching for the flaps during rollout and pulling the gear handle instead.

While pilots make a lot of the mistakes that lead to runway incursions, they aren't the only ones who make errors. Controllers also make mistakes. The good news is that controller errors are rare; the bad news is that because they are rare we tend to be less alert to their possibility. What we need is vigilance, the kind that's summed up by my standard admonition to my students: "Never forget who the pilot in command is."

Even pilots who are duly vigilant at nontowered fields - watching and listening for other aircraft, self-announcing position and intentions - may let their guard down a little at towered fields. The tendency is to believe that the controllers are always on top of whatever situation might be evolving. For the most part, they are, but if the controller does drop the ball, it's in everyone's best interests if the pilots are prepared to pick it up. Remember that the person in the tower is just that-a human being subject to the same distractions and lapses as the rest of us. If the controller's taxi instructions don't seem to jibe with the airport diagram, get a clarification. Don't assume that just because a controller has cleared you to cross a runway the coast is clear. Look!

The use of nonstandard phraseology, usually by pilots, can also cause confusion. I admonish my students not to emulate certain pilots they hear on the radio. You are not leaving four-point-five; you're descending through four thousand, five hundred. The correct phrase is "traffic in sight," not "tally-ho." When you don't use standard wording, the controller may not understand you. Using the correct phraseology leaves no doubt in anyone's mind.

Knowing the right words to use isn't enough. You also need to know what those words mean. Consider this report: "We received these instructions: 'Taxi to Runway 17, intersection Bravo.' " This pilot then proceeded onto Runway 17 at intersection B with an airplane on approach to that runway.

The pilot thought that if he didn't hear the phrase hold short, then he wasn't required to do so. However, the Aeronautical Information Manual, paragraph 4-3-18 clearly states, "When ATC clears an aircraft to 'taxi to' an assigned takeoff runway, the absence of holding instructions authorizes the aircraft to 'cross' all runways which the taxi route intersects except the assigned takeoff runway. It does not include authorization to 'taxi onto' or 'cross' the assigned takeoff runway at any point." The worst part of this incursion is that the pilot who wrote this report is a flight instructor.

I personally witnessed an example of this type of confusion at my home field. A maintenance crew was repainting and sealing surfaces, and the driver of the maintenance vehicle called the ground controller, asking for permission to proceed along some taxiways to a work site. The busy controller continued to direct aircraft. When he finally had a chance, he radioed, "Maintenance 26, go ahead."

The transmission that followed made it clear that the driver had interpreted "go ahead" to mean that he could proceed across the runway. The controller had only meant that he could proceed to make his request. When the controller stopped the vehicle, the driver responded that he had permission to proceed along that route. Be alert to situations like this at your own airport and be ready to react if you find someone sharing your taxiway or runway.

The increasing number of runway incursions tells us that we can't take ground operations lightly. Like everything else in aviation, taxiing demands our full attention.

Take some time to think about how you accomplish all of the tasks you need to perform before takeoff and after landing, and ask yourself if there is a better, safer way. Don't allow yourself to be distracted, and learn to avoid other's mistakes. Read safety reports and ask yourself if you are prone to make the same mistakes. And always look before you move.


Callback is a free monthly safety bulletin published by NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. You can have Callback mailed to you by writing with your request to: National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Office of the NASA ASRS, Post Office Box 189, Moffet Field, California 94035-0189. You can also download current and past editions of Callback by logging onto the Web site ( ).

By Sue Critz

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