Safety Publications/Articles

Cleared For Takeoff?

Look Before You Go

A student pilot receiving dual instruction had just completed his run-up and was prepared to take off at a tower-controlled airport in Maryland. He taxied to the hold line, switched to the tower frequency, and requested a takeoff clearance. The tower cleared the aircraft for takeoff.

As the student taxied toward the runway threshold, the instructor looked to the left to see if the final approach was clear. There, less than a quarter of a mile out, was a Cherokee on final. The instructor slammed on the brakes. The student asked, "What's the matter?" A split second later the Cherokee went flashing by the windscreen.

The instructor asked the tower, "Are you sure Eight-Niner-Two is cleared for takeoff?" The tower's response: "Yes, you're cleared for..." The radio went dead for a moment. Then the tower controller came back, "Cessna Eight-Niner-Two, taxi into position and hold." With some trepidation and after looking hard at the final approach, the student taxied onto the runway and stopped. This was to allow the airplane that wasn't supposed to be there to exit the active runway. The controller cleared the Cessna for takeoff, and the student and his instructor were on their way back to their nice, safe nontowered airport. As the student climbed out of the pattern, the controller said, "Cessna Eight-Niner-Two, thanks for your help today. Come back anytime." It sounded to the student and his instructor as though some conversation about this incident had taken place in the tower cab.

On the way home the instructor and student discussed what had just happened. First of all, the outcome could have been tragic had the instructor not looked and seen the Cherokee on short final. Since the student was monitoring ground control before taxiing past the hold line, he did not hear another aircraft being cleared to land. It's important to teach your students to look toward the final approach as well as down the runway in front of them, even if they have been given clearance at a towered airport. If departing from an intersection, students should be taught to look both ways before entering an active runway.

In this case, it didn't occur to the student to look before he taxied onto the active because the controller had cleared him to take off. He made the mistake of assuming that the tower controller took over the pilot's responsibility to keep airplanes from running into each other. For some reason, many new students consider controllers to be omnipotent and the words they utter infallible. Controllers are human like everyone else and can make mistakes the same as the rest of us. Students should be taught that the buck stops with them, and they alone are responsible for the safety of the aircraft.

The student didn't understand that he must practice the same vigilance in searching for other aircraft, both in the air and on the ground, at a towered airport as he does at an airport without a control tower. In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson early in the student's aeronautical career. The experience of the near-miss will always be in the back of his mind when he taxis onto an active runway.

The tragedy of not exercising proper vigilance at towered airports was brought into focus at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in March 2000. The NTSB preliminary report indicates the tower cleared a Cessna 152 for takeoff and a Cessna 172 for position-and-hold on the same runway at the same time. The 152 was at the end of the runway, and the 172 was making an intersection departure. The tower assumed that both aircraft were at the end of the runway. The 152 on its takeoff roll collided with the 172 as it pulled onto the runway.

All four of the two aircrafts' occupants were killed. The Cessna 152 had an instructor and a student aboard. The C-172 was occupied by an ATP and another pilot. There were pilots with considerable experience on board both aircraft. The weather was VFR. And yet, two aircraft tragically collided on the runway.

The FAA and the general aviation community are concerned about the rise in runway incursion accidents. A variety of ways to reduce these incidents are being explored. They range from 3-D paint schemes for hold lines to traffic lights like those used on highways and new ground radar systems.

Assuming good visibility, the best weapon we have for reducing runway incursions is our eyes. It is essential that your students thoroughly understand that looking out for other aircraft, either in the air or on the ground at a nontowered or a towered airport, may save lives.

Richard Hiner is vice president of training for the Air Safety Foundation.

By Richard Hiner

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