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Foundation Perspective

Which way do we go?

Runway choices aren't always black and white

How do you pick a runway for departure at a nontowered airport? Are such choices always black and white? Do your students have a clear understanding when they are inevitably confronted with such a decision? Let's review an actual situation and you make the call.

A light wind (about 5 knots) is favoring Runway 18, but Runway 36 is much closer to the FBO and has a slight downhill run for the first half. A business jet taxies out and chooses Runway 36, although local traffic is using 18. The crew goes through predeparture preparations and waits for an opening in the traffic. A trainer is taxiing for Runway 18. The bizjet pilot announces intentions on the CTAF, and an aircraft on downwind offers to circle until the jet has departed.

The jet announces that it's in position to take off from Runway 36, but the trainer has just lined up on Runway 18. Here is a Mexican standoff, a failure to communicate, and a potential collision in the making. A bystander in an aircraft on the run-up pad adjacent to Runway 18 suggests to the trainer that it would be prudent to vacate the runway because of the imminent departure of the jet. The trainer does not reply but retreats to the taxiway as the jet thunders off. The runway is more than 7,000 feet long, so the jet is well airborne before passing the trainer.

Unidentified voice on the CTAF: "Idiot, why don't you listen to your radio?" Second unidentified voice: "You're the idiot, 18 is the active runway." The trainer departs on Runway 18, and life goes back to normal.

Pose this to your students and provide some additional references to give them practical exposure to the regs. FAR 91.113 outlines the right-of-way rules. Everyone knows that aircraft landing have the right of way, but that doesn't apply here - both the trainer and the jet are on the ground. Approaching head-on is covered for airborne situations and taxiing: Each aircraft shall alter course to the right - but that won't work here as no runway is wide enough to allow passing "well clear' of each other.

FAR 91.126, operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace, indicates the preferred direction of turns and that helicopters are to avoid fixed-wing traffic. There's nothing helpful there. FAR 91.111 proclaims that operation close to another aircraft so as to create a hazard is a violation, and 91.13 - careless and reckless operation - ensures that at least one pilot will be found guilty of something if any aluminum is bent.

How about checking the Aeronautical Information Manual? It does not give guidance on this topic other than to provide a summary of recommended communication procedures. There are repeated admonishments to listen and to be prepared for aircraft landing in a conflicting direction. Now it's decision time. Who has the right of way, the trainer or the bizjet? Cast your ballots now and don't read ahead.

The absence of specific guidance makes it clear that at nontowered airports it is the pilot's choice as to which runway will be used for takeoff and landing, but FAR 91.13 gives the FAA the latitude to prosecute if the agency believes that good judgment was not used. The bizjet was going against local traffic but did not take the runway until it was clear and announced its intention to depart. The trainer either elected to press the perceived right of way with traffic flow in his favor, and/or did not hear the jet's departure announcement. There were no aircraft landing in this case, and if there were, the jet would clearly be obligated to wait

The jury finds that the business jet created the potential for conflict by using other than the preferred runway when there was not a clearly compelling operational need. Saving fuel, a shorter taxi, or a more direct routing are not more compelling needs than avoiding a collision. The regulations do, however, preserve the right to use the pilot in command's runway of choice provided that it does not conflict with other traffic. The jury also finds that the trainer should have yielded sooner, and did - albeit grudgingly.

How could this been handled more gracefully? The jet should have used the preferred runway, although frequently there are circumstances that make it unsuitable for larger aircraft. In such a case, traffic using the preferred runway assumes a larger responsibility to allow another aircraft to take off or land in light of operational necessity. The tables could easily be turned where a short crosswind runway is needed for a light aircraft that might conflict with operations on a larger runway by larger aircraft. Waiting your turn to fit into the flow solves the problem. The trainer could have waited another 30 seconds before taking the active and allowed the jet to depart. The aircraft on downwind made the heads-up play and wisely avoided any confrontation. Gold star!

Courtesy and common sense apply in all flight operations and especially at nontowered airports. Professional crews are generally sensitive to avoiding conflict and usually have a good operational reason for choosing a particular runway. There are exceptions, and when somebody is rude and pushy, you can compensate by being extra courteous and self-deprecating. That will be more effective than fighting the good fight on the CTAF. If you must say something, keep it focused to providing safety information about collision avoidance rather than commenting on the other pilot's intelligence. Privately explaining a bad example to students is valuable. Most important, give your students some practice scenarios so they have a plan when something like this happens to them. It will.

We'd like to hear your thoughts - e-mail us at or write to AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Instructor Report, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.

Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

By Bruce Landsberg

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