The two-seat trainer had been cleared onto the runway after a business jet had landed, but had not yet been cleared for takeoff. That would have to wait until the jet exited at a taxiway about 4,000 feet down the long runway.
Waiting isn’t always a bad thing. It gives any wake turbulence a chance to dissipate or drift away downwind. And it gives the student pilot a rare opportunity to take in the airport from this unique in-cockpit vantage point: the jet, now making its way along the parallel taxiway; the tower, almost a mile from the trainer’s position; the midfield windsock; the expanse of runway ahead.
It would be tempting to prolong this “teachable moment” by sitting out here and waiting until the student pilot catches on that something’s not right. However, an airplane sitting on a runway with no further instructions is an awkward scenario—one that requires immediate clarification.
Prompted by the flight instructor, the student pilot tentatively radios the tower to remind ATC that the Cessna is lined up and ready for takeoff.
A takeoff clearance—and an apology—immediately arrive. (If you have ever seen how unobtrusive a single-engine airplane can look from the cab of a control tower a mile away, and how easily a white airplane blends in with large white runway markings, it may be easier to comprehend how your presence out there might come to be overlooked.)
Surprisingly perhaps, quiet times at the airport may be as likely, or more likely, than hectic “push” periods for something like this to occur.
And don’t be surprised if a different voice responds to your request for clarification of your takeoff status. Air traffic controllers who have filed Aviation Safety Reporting System narratives about losing track of an aircraft on the ground or in flight have identified staffing changes, or the consolidation of air traffic control positions, as the backdrop for some lapses.
Such events are uncommon, but not unheard-of. They offer one more reason for you to know what’s going on around you in the local airspace, and if something doesn’t seem right, to be “proactive” and speak up about it.