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Preventing runway incursions

Instructors are the 'tip of the sword'

Runway incursions aren't new. In fact, as most pilots know, the worst disaster in aviation history happened on the ground, when 583 people died in the collision of two Boeing 747s on the island of Tenerife in 1977 (see "Two Aircraft, One Runway," p. 22). The tragedy happened when the captain of a KLM Boeing 747 initiated takeoff without a clearance and collided head-on with a Pan Am 747 back-taxiing on the same runway.

In case you haven't been around aviation for the past 10 years, the whole subject of runway incursions has become a hot button for Congress, the FAA, the NTSB, and many pilots. The basic definition of a runway incursion is simple: unauthorized trespass of an active runway by an aircraft, ground vehicle, or person. Technically speaking, runway incursions occur only at towered airports -- that's the only place they're tabulated-but they cause the same hazards at nontowered facilities.

Types of runway incursions

Today the FAA categorizes runway incursions as one of three types: vehicle/pedestrian deviation (VPD), when a vehicle or person causes the incursion; operational error (OE), a mistake by ATC; or pilot deviation (PD), when the pilot is at fault. Then each incursion is given a severity category:

Category A: Collision narrowly avoided by extreme action or chance;
Category B: Significant potential for collision;
Category C: Ample time and distance to avoid a potential collision; and
Category D: Little or no chance of a collision.
Had this system of categorizing incursions been in place when the accident happened in Tenerife, it would have surely been labeled a pilot deviation. In fact, that's still the problem.

Every year pilots, including airline and other non-general aviation pilots, are the main culprits when it comes to incursions. On average we cause 58 percent of the incursions, while operational errors and vehicle/pedestrian deviations are responsible for the remainder in approximately equal amounts. These numbers may vary slightly from year to year, but not much. Since October 2003, there have been nine category A or B incursions/accidents (the really bad ones). Of those, seven were pilot deviations, and all seven involved a general aviation aircraft.

Our role as instructors

Instructors have a vital responsibility to teach our students that flying the airplane starts at preflight, not when the wheels lift off the ground. Our role starts with the primary students, but it doesn't end there. The FAA has made runway safety a required topic for every checkride as well as every flight instructor refresher clinic (FIRC). Pilots need to be cognizant of runway incursion problems at every stage of their training; this shouldn't be a topic covered just once. With that in mind, the flight review affords an excellent opportunity for reaching pilots we normally wouldn't. Next time you conduct a flight review, make it a point to test your client's knowledge of ground operations. Runway incursions are one of the simplest accidents to prevent, yet they happen every day. Three big factors in runway incursions are:

  • Environment. Pilots are more likely to have runway incursion problems at unfamiliar airports. Common sense tells us to use extra caution in unfamiliar situations. Pilots have an easily available "cheat sheet" for unfamiliar airports: the airport diagram. Diagrams for most towered airports can be downloaded free from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Web site. Use them, and teach your students to always have them ready for reference.
  • Night. If you can't see something, how can you avoid it? Extra vigilance must be used when taxiing at night.
  • Reduced visibility. The most serious incursion accidents usually happen when the visibility is low. Fog, rain, snow, and other weather can significantly reduce visibility.

Situational awareness on the ground

When most pilots hear the term situational awareness, their thoughts immediately turn to the sky. That ability to draw a mental map, anticipate the next turn, and know exactly where the other guy is, is almost always associated with a traffic pattern, an approach, or the en route phase of a trip. Pilots are taught, rightly so, that one of the keys to flying is to always be two steps ahead of the airplane. What pilots also need to realize is that they must be two steps ahead while on the ground, too.

For example, in the air, good pilots use the position reports of other pilots to draw a mental map of all traffic in the pattern. The same applies on the ground. Show students how to listen to other aircraft on the field, and locate them on the airport diagram. At first this will be a cumbersome exercise, but eventually it becomes second nature. Just as a good instructor will instill habits of safety in the air -- checklist usage, scanning for traffic, cockpit resource management -- these same habits should be instilled on the ground.

The tools

When the Tenerife disaster occurred in 1977, it focused the attention of the aviation community on the need for runway safety. Subsequent studies showed that pilot education could help solve the problem, and ASF has been helping pilots learn to keep safe around runways ever since.

ASF online education

Education efforts don't stop with taxi diagrams. A brand-new free runway safety course covers everything from airport signs to situational awareness-an excellent tool for instructors and pilots alike.

Back to basics

Remember studying with flash cards, and how effective they were? ASF brought them to the airport. These free flashcards cover one of the most important aspects in runway safety- airport markings. They are a perfect tool for a flight review, a briefing, or just a simple review.

Flight instructors are often called the "tip of the sword" in aviation safety. This has never been truer than when discussing runway incursions. From the first flight with a new student to a flight review with an airline captain, we have the responsibility to promote a culture of safety. It's our duty to remember that the same culture extends to both the air and the ground.

David Wright is director of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A former pilot for US Airways Express, he is a CFI with more than 2,000 hours.

By David Wright

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