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Preventing runway incursionsPreventing runway incursions

There are many things that we take for granted in our aviation adventures—and none more so than simply getting to the runway and back in one piece. We assume airplanes will go where they are told, ground vehicles will stay out of the way, and all will be right with the world.

Helpful tools from ASF

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has developed a number of resources to help pilots avoid runway incursions. ASF’s free, interactive Runway Safety online course is designed to help pilots prevent runway incursions by studying the various factors involved.

In cooperation with the FAA’s Office of Runway Safety, ASF also offers a growing online library of runway incursion animations, educational presentations that include actual ATC radio communications.

Taxi diagrams for towered airports, Runway Safety flash cards, and other resources can be found on the ASF Web site. —Mike Collins

There are many things that we take for granted in our aviation adventures—and none more so than simply getting to the runway and back in one piece. We assume airplanes will go where they are told, ground vehicles will stay out of the way, and all will be right with the world. Unfortunately it’s not always that way.

Pilots sometimes don’t take runway incursions—an unauthorized intrusion by an airplane onto a runway—as seriously as other aviation safety issues. Part of it may be that since incursions don’t happen in flight, they are perceived to be less important. Part of it could be that the phrase runway incursion doesn’t sound all that dangerous—it doesn’t sound like you’re about to step in front of a bus.

Unfortunately, if it’s a runway incursion it’s also a taxiway excursion—we’ve left the protection of the taxiway and its friendly blue lights. Even that doesn’t sound all that bad

Over the past few years, however, there have been a lot of high-profile runway incursions Within just a few days in July 2008, a Delta 757 did a touch and go in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to avoid a United A320 that missed a turn and overran the hold-short line, while another Delta jet landing at New York’s LaGuardia Airport just missed a Delta Connection regional jet that had been cleared to cross a runway in error. A United Airlines crew was presented with the Air Line Pilots Association Air Safety Award for essentially jumping over an Atlas 747 while taking off from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport—they rotated early and avoided the 747 by a few feet. It seems the airlines get most of the ink because of the tremendous amount of lives that are put at risk with each incursion, but runway incursions happen to all kinds of aircraft.

It could happen to me

Sometimes problems can arise when an aircraft is not where the controller expects it to be. If an aircraft usually parks on the south side of the field, the controller unconsciously expects it to be there when the pilot calls for taxi. It’s just like when a pilot gets used to hearing a certain clearance, and acts on it even when he gets a different one. If an airplane is not where it normally is—maybe it’s taxiing over from maintenance, or back from the gas pump or wash rack—the controller may not always pick up on the change.

Sometimes when an airplane calls for taxi the controller can’t see it and issues taxi instructions without having the airplane in sight. So it may not be immediately obvious if an aircraft isn’t where it says it is—or where the controller thinks it is. Perhaps the airplane is back between the hangars and takes a minute or two to get going. By that time, the controller has often moved on to other duties and may not have an opportunity to verify that the position of the aircraft matches his expectation—and the taxi instructions issued.

As a former controller I had all those things happen one afternoon. I thought I heard an airplane request taxi from north parking for departure, when it was actually coming from south parking. North means a short, straight shot to the runway. South means a longer taxi and a major runway crossing. A moment later, I looked up just in time to see a Cessna 182 crossing in front of a departing Falcon business jet. The Falcon was light and easily cleared the 182 so it really wasn’t all that close (easy for me to say). But that’s not the point. The point is that there was a complete loss of separation. As a pilot, it’s hard for me to believe that the 182 didn’t first look down the runway, see the Falcon moving, and wait to cross.

Here’s what’s supposed to happen: First, before the controller (the person who goes by “Tower” on the radio) clears an aircraft for takeoff, he should scan the entire runway to ensure it is clear. Second, ground control should verify the position of an aircraft before giving taxi instructions. Finally, ground control should verify that the runway is clear before allowing aircraft to cross.

So how do ground control and the tower work together to get airplanes across runways safely? Well, someone “owns” each runway, and that’s usually tower—although ground may own unused or lightly used runways from time to time, depending upon the tower’s standard operating procedures and runway layout. If tower owns the runway, ground will negotiate or “coordinate” to cross the runway when it needs to; “I’d like to cross Runway 25 at Delta with a Cessna” or “After United, I’d like to cross Runway 17 at the approach end with a Cirrus.” Occasionally tower is too busy for ground to get a word in edgewise—that’s why sometimes you are sitting there wondering why you haven’t been given a clearance to cross the runway when it looks like it should be no problem. Being a controller is all about managing priorities.

Divine providence

Poor visibility, weather, or darkness complicates the process. Often, at night, the controller is lucky if he can identify an airplane on the ramp. Once an aircraft is out on the airfield it is virtually in stealth mode—all that can be seen is a taxi light, a beacon, and possibly a nav light or two.

When it’s foggy, the airport and the traffic appear different from what they usually look like. Controllers have to depend on airplanes reporting clear of runways and taxiways. Managing ground traffic by depending on airplanes being where they say they are, as opposed to where controllers know they are does not bring great comfort. Because of that, in poor visibility, even though there are fewer operations, the workload goes up exponentially. Every airplane needs more attention, and nothing can be taken for granted. And if a pilot gets disoriented on the airport things can get hairy in a hurry.

There was an example of that at Providence, Rhode Island, where one airline crew’s vigilance avoided an accident with another airliner lost in the mist. It was an ugly day, and the bad visibility meant ATC couldn’t see the runways or taxiways from the tower. A United flight landed on Runway 5R and was given taxi instructions to the gate, but made a wrong turn along the way. Once United realized that its positional awareness had been compromised, the flight stopped and tried to explain to ATC that it was on a runway—although it wasn’t entirely clear which runway.

The controller told the United flight it was on Runway 5L, which was closed, when in fact United was on Runway 5R. The controller then cleared a USAirways flight for takeoff on Runway 5R. That’s not good. Ironically, one of the saving graces of this particular situation was the fact that everyone was on the same frequency—ground and tower were combined. This allowed the USAirways flight to hear that there was confusion over the United flight’s position on the airport.

The USAirways flight did not immediately respond to the takeoff clearance (I can imagine that the crew was discussing the situation among themselves before responding). The controller then cleared the USAirways flight for takeoff a second time on Runway 5R and advised that the United flight was on Runway 5L—nowhere near them. The USAirways crew basically told ATC it was staying clear of all runways until ATC got things sorted out—a decision that probably saved lives. It’s good to know where everyone is before you go blindly hurtling down a piece of pavement at 150 miles an hour.

For lack of a rearview mirror

An FAA friend told me about the day he was sitting in the cockpit jump seat of a jet holding short of the runway for an intersection departure while everyone else was using full length. As the jet was waiting, a clearance was given to a different airplane to taxi into position and hold—but the pilot thought it was for him and taxied into position for the intersection departure. He figured out something was wrong when an airplane he couldn’t see was given takeoff clearance on the same runway. The other airplane saw a jet in its way and questioned the takeoff clearance, allowing everyone time to sort things out, but it could’ve gone bad, especially if it had been at night. If someone in front of you is given a takeoff clearance, that’s OK. If someone behind you is given a takeoff clearance, you had better hope it’s a helicopter.

Why is this happening?

There is no single cause for why runway incursions happen. The FAA has made an effort to address runway safety since runway incursions reached a peak in 2001. There have been improvements in airport compliance with runway safety standards and runway incursions did decline initially, but now they seem to be on the rise again. According to the FAA, 54 percent of incursions from 2003 to 2006 were caused by pilot errors, 20 percent were caused by ATC, and 17 percent were caused by vehicles or pedestrians. Contributing to incursions on the FAA side of things, in 2008 at least 20 percent of controllers at 25 separate ATC facilities, including large airports, were working six-day weeks. Controllers are human. When they’re overworked, they’re going to make mistakes.

Listen to your inner pilot

There are several things we can do to help prevent runway incursions. If something doesn’t seem right to you, question it. If you don’t think it’s safe to accept a clearance, don’t. If your inner pilot is telling you something doesn’t seem right, take a moment and reevaluate. Where I fly, we call it a “safety pause.” The USAirways flight crew did a great job at Providence and prevented a situation from going from bad to tragic by simply waiting.

If you become unsure about something while taxiing—position, taxi route, or clearance—stop! If the weather is bad, tell ATC you are stopping, and where you are stopping. This does two things. First, it tells ATC where you are so they don’t have to ask. Second, it tells other airplanes you are there and keeps them from rear-ending you.

Use extra caution during low-visibility operations. It can be very disorienting for the pilot when the normal visual cues used to verify position are missing. This is bad enough on an airport that you are intimately familiar with; at an unfamiliar airport with an unusual taxiway/runway setup (such as Providence) it can get really ugly, really fast. Knowing the subtleties of runway and taxiway markings and signage is essential.

See and avoid on the ground applies to both airplanes and controllers. The last thing a controller will do as he clears an aircraft for takeoff is to look down the length of the runway to make sure it’s clear. That’s the same thing you should do before you enter a runway. Just because you have a clearance doesn’t mean the runway—and the approach—are clear. Look, and if you’re not sure, ask.

And finally, always keep an open mind to new avenues of gaining information. At my airline, we got a friendly letter from the FAA outlining a number of serious runway incursions and what we should be doing about them. It even suggested some of the great AOPA training resources available online as part of the solution— see the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Web site.

However, one of the best approaches I’ve seen to increasing situational awareness on the ground was in the men’s restroom at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida: taxiway diagrams above the urinals. I was a captive audience—clearly they’ve done their human factors research.

Marc K. Henegar is a captain for a national airline.

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