Safety Publications/Articles

Night fright

Why we must work to end runway incursions

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Runway Safety online course is designed to help pilots avoid and prevent runway incursions by studying the factors involved. It is free to all pilots, and successful completion of the course fulfills the seminar attendance requirement of the FAA Wings program.

Runway incursions have been an FAA and NTSB hot button for years, but like most instructors I never really gave much thought to the subject. All that changed in a split second, when a Category A runway incursion--the worst kind--nearly ended my life at the sleepy little Wimauma Airport (now a private grass strip) near Tampa, Florida.

As my Cessna 170 reached rotation speed on the nighttime takeoff, I eased the tail off the ground. A second later, the ghostly apparition of an Ercoupe loomed to the left--within about six feet of my aircraft's longitudinal axis.

This was impossible! Where did that airplane come from?

I knew we were going to hit. It was my worst nightmare come true. The 170 was almost at flying speed, so I did the only thing I could: I turned the ailerons hard right to lift the left wing as high as possible. Then I popped on half flaps and hauled back on the yoke. Thank God for manual flaps!

I lost track of my direction of travel while peering at the Ercoupe. Its spinning prop passed under my Cessna's wing--only a foot or so outboard of the strut attach point. I looked down and back. Sure enough, there sat the Ercoupe in the middle of the grass runway--without any lights. While I was watching, the pilot turned on the external lights.

The FAA did not factor this incident into its statistics regarding runway incursions, since only events at towered airports are reported. One has to wonder how many near misses go unreported at airports without air traffic control towers.

The FAA categorizes runway incursions in four groups--A, B, C, and D--in decreasing order of severity:

  • Class A is one in which the incident results in a collision or extreme measures must be taken to avoid collision.
  • Class B is one in which a significant potential for collision exists.
  • Class C is defined as decreased separation but with enough time to avoid collision.
  • Class D is a runway incursion with little chance of collision.

From fiscal year 2000 through FY 2003, there were about 262 million takeoffs and landings at towered airports in the United States, or about 180,000 per day. During that time, there were 1,475 runway incursions, or just more than one for each day during that four-year period.

Of the four classifications of incidents, 4 percent qualified as Class A, 8 percent as Class B, 34 percent as Class C, and 54 percent Class D. The study showed a slight decrease in the number of incidents, but one FAA forecast predicts an increase in the total number of runway incursions during the next decade.

Why should CFIs be particularly concerned? Because 75 percent of runway incursions involved general aviation aircraft.

Causes of runway incursions are classified as operational errors (controller mistakes), pilot deviations, or vehicle/ pedestrian deviations. During the four years studied in the FAA report, controllers were to blame for 23 percent of the runway incursions, and vehicles or pedestrians inadvertently wandering onto a runway accounted for 20 percent. Pilot mistakes caused a whopping 57 percent.

New pilots in particular believe that controllers are infallible. This is an important concept to keep in mind--controllers are human, and humans make mistakes. This was terribly evident on the morning of March 9, 2000, at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport in Florida. At about 10:34 that morning, the tower controller cleared a Cessna 152 for takeoff from the end of Runway 14. Seconds later, a Cessna 172 at an intersection 3,000 feet down the same runway called ready for takeoff. The busy controller mistakenly believed the 172 was also at the end of Runway 14.

Just as the 152 neared rotation speed, the 172 pulled out in front of the 152. The young flight instructor in the 152 tried to avoid the collision, but the 152 stalled and struck the 172. Both airplanes burst into flames, killing the student and instructor in the 152, as well as the ATP-rated pilot and his passenger in the 172.

The lesson from this accident is simple: Always look before you leap. Every pilot must realize that he or she is the person with final responsibility for safety. Never consider crossing a taxiway or entering a runway without making certain the path is clear and there is no conflicting traffic. Just because the controller clears you doesn't guarantee the path is clear.

Exiting the runway at Daytona Beach, Florida, one evening, about twilight, I was cleared to taxi to the ramp. As the instructor candidate I was training taxied the Piper Seminole and we approached the intersection of Runway 16/34, I looked to the south and saw a landing light. "Ground, confirm we are cleared to cross," I asked.

The ground controller's reply seemed a little short when he verified our clearance all the way to the ramp. As we started across the runway, I did not like what was developing and was already adding power, since it was too late to stop. About this time, the ground controller discovered why I was hesitant and excitedly transmitted in the blind, "Expedite! Expedite! We aren't talking to him!"

The aircraft landing on 34 was a student pilot who was transmitting on unicom and thought she was at Ormond Beach, an airport eight miles north of Daytona. I later heard she never knew she was in the Daytona Beach airspace until she recognized the tower, at which point she executed a go-around and proceeded to Ormond. Even then, she did not switch frequencies and talk to the tower.

Controllers, pilots, instructors, and students make mistakes. The trick to avoiding incidents or accidents regarding runway incursions boils down to playing the game by the rules and using common sense. As instructors, we must make sure our students understand the issue--and know how to operate safely.

In addition to correctly using the radios, pilots should have an airport diagram open and on their kneeboard during ground operations. Pilots can print airport diagrams from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Web site and have disposable copies on which they can write and map their taxi clearance. Every pilot must have complete knowledge of all airport signs, taxiway and runway markings, and general procedures for that airport.

If a pilot becomes lost while taxiing, the first thing he or she should do is stop, then call ground control and confess. Another technique to avoid becoming lost is to request "progressive taxi instructions." This clues the ground controller that the pilot may be unfamiliar with the field and needs a little extra attention. It is far better to get progressive taxi instructions than risk a runway incursion.

After my near-miss with the Ercoupe, I landed and walked over to the pilot. He was as shaken by the experience as I.

I asked him three questions. The first was why. The second was if he was aware that regulations required navigation lights to be on whenever moving an airplane at night. And the last, most important question was, "Are you ever going to do this again?" I believed him when he replied he would never move an airplane at night without lights.

We were lucky the price was no higher than a little fright.

Joe Clark is an assistant professor in the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He has been a flight instructor since 1978 and has given approximately 6,000 hours of instruction.

By Joe Clark

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