Safety Publications/Articles

Towered Troubles

Pilots continue to have difficulty with surface operations at towered airports. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation and the FAA Aviation Safety Program cooperatively have established a major education push to reduce the number of pilot deviations, particularly runway incursions. A deviation means that the controller cleared and expected a flight to do one thing, and the pilot did not follow those instructions. Students and flight instructors have an opportunity and an obligation to improve the statistics.

In September 1998 alone, there were 44 surface incidents. When compared to the number of operations at towered airports, that may not sound like much, but in each case the deviation created the potential for a collision. In looking at one year's worth of data, we found that weather was not a factor in most of the cases, and the deviations occurred during daylight hours. Two-thirds of the pilots involved in deviations entered a runway without a clearance. Twenty-three percent took off or landed without a clearance.

These actions are guaranteed to get you an audience with FAA Flight Standards at the least, and the penalties range from an educational session to possible suspension of your pilot certificate. These kinds of incidents also create a negative image of general avia- tion, so there are excellent incentives to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.

In reviewing the incidents, we found a number of problems that, when covered in the instructional environment, should disappear. If students are based at towered airports, they should have little difficulty. Many pilots, though, learn at nontowered airports. The minimal exposure that they receive to tower operations in primary training is not sufficient to prepare them for operations at major Class C or Class B airports without some additional instruction.

Let's look at some examples: A pilot was instructed to hold short of Runway 23 Left at the flashing yellow lights. The pilot read back, "Hold short of 23 Right." Ground control caught the mistake and repeated the clearance. This time the pilot read it back correctly. The pilot then proceeded to the runway and crossed the hold-short lines in front of another aircraft on short final. The 200-hour pilot confessed that it was the first time he had been to an airport of that size and was confused by the flashing yellow lights. He was also distracted by a flap problem.

A 300-hour pilot was told to taxi into position and hold because of an aircraft on the runway. The aircraft was observed to take off without a clearance. The pilot stated that he thought the tower said, "Taxi into position and go." The pilot confirmed that the aircraft radios worked properly, but he had been unable to locate his headset and could not hear well.

There were several incidents involving parallel runways and pilots becoming confused between right and left. Sometimes they confused the runway direction as well. A 130-hour pilot was instructed to enter the pattern for Runway 19 Left and contact the tower. The pilot proceeded to Runway 1 Left and landed without a clearance. A test aircraft with one engine inoperative on final had to go around. The Cessna 172 then taxied from the runway to the air carrier ramp. Airport security met the pilot at Gate 12 and escorted him to the general aviation ramp.

There were literally hundreds of these types of incidents involving light aircraft during the past year, and it is our responsibility to emphasize avoiding such situations. Rest assured that the FAA will, and designated examiners will stress towered-airport operations on practical tests. We are not advocating prolonged primary training but a practical approach. It is unrealistic to expect a new pilot with the minimum three takeoffs and landings at a small towered airport, or even a busy one, to have any real proficiency at operating in a high-density traffic environment.

Encourage your students to return within 90 days after their checkride, or before, and spend a half-day with you at a busy towered airport. If possible, arrange a tour in advance of the tower and the approach control facility. It will be an exceptional lesson. More importantly, it will provide new pilots with a far better understanding of air traffic control procedures and airport markings.

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

By Bruce Landsberg

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