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Taxi trouble

Lessons learned from a close call

They say lessons best learned are those that come the hard way. It’s only from suffering through consequences that we are really motivated to change.
Runway 36L and taxiways M and N at Memphis International Airport.
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Runway 36L and taxiways M and N at Memphis International Airport.

Um, no thank you. I prefer the see-and-avoid method. See someone else do something silly and avoid doing the same thing myself. Plus, in aviation, we simply cannot afford to learn every lesson the hard way. The consequences of poor aeronautical decision making are a price none of us are willing to pay. Fortunately, we can learn from other pilots’ blunders through accident case studies or good old-fashioned hangar talk. In the world of airport taxi operations, our friendly warning comes in the form of hot spots. According to the FAA, “a hot spot is a location on an airport movement area with a history or potential risk of collision or runway incursion, and where heightened attention by pilots and drivers is necessary.”

Let me tell you about one of the taxiing lessons I learned from someone else’s hard way. Years ago, I was sitting right seat in a Bombardier CRJ-200 for what was then Pinnacle Airlines. It was night, and we were taxiing out to Runway 36L, one of three parallel north/south runways at Memphis International Airport. As we got closer, we swapped over to tower frequency just in time to hear them give a takeoff clearance for 36L to a corporate jet, a Lear or Citation maybe. The exact details are hazy. But what happened next is crystal clear in my memory. That jet came barreling down Taxiway M. (We were on Taxiway N.) A pilot of another aircraft on the ground, who sounded just as stunned as us, made a call. “That airplane just took off on the taxiway.” Tower immediately issued a blanket call to all aircraft on the ground to hold their position until they could be certain of the location of every aircraft on the field. This was before the days of ground track transponders.

Our fellow pilot had several things to teach us from his hard-earned lesson. For one, when lining up on a runway, especially at night, always check to make sure the runway numbers match what you are expecting. We all remember the crash of Comair Flight 5191 that departed from the wrong runway at night, a runway that was too short for the CRJ-100ER aircraft. Forty-nine people lost their lives that day. The second mistake of our jet pilot was this: Taxiways are outlined in blue lights at night. Runways are in white (or yellow toward the end). Third, there is an FAA designated hot spot there at the beginning of 36L and taxiways M and N. Now, I don’t know if that pilot caused the hot spot to be developed or if it was there before the date of his flight, but there is no excuse for future pilots to make the same mistake, now that we have a bright orange-brown circle warning us. (The FAA defines their colors in a way that makes us all feel like we shouldn’t have passed kindergarten. Is that class E airspace designation purple-pink? No, magenta is the proper term. How about the middle marker beacon? Orange-yellow? No. Amber. But I digress.)

None of us out there that night had to make the mistake ourselves to feel that sick feeling you get when you realize how narrowly a catastrophe was avoided. What if someone had been cleared to cross Taxiway M? What if we had been taxiing down Taxiway M and not Taxiway N with our jet full of 50 passengers? Thank God that story ended with nothing more than words uttered which will not be mentioned here, and some probable job hunting for the pilot involved. So, here’s the takeaway: Make double sure you are taking off on the right runway. Study airport layouts in advance so you can watch out for hot spots. Oh, and don’t take off on the blue runway.

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