The Feb. 24 issue of Flight School Business included a reminder of the hazards airport ramps can pose to the uninitiated. Once across the ramp and buckled into their seats, nonpilot passengers have relatively few opportunities to get into mischief until the aircraft stops again. Pilots, on the other hand, have to negotiate all those yards—or sometimes miles—of pavement between the place they parked and a place where they can safely (and legally) take off. Plus there’s that business of getting back again after touchdown.
Driving to the hold-short line might not seem like a formidable challenge, but that doesn’t mean nothing can possibly go wrong. An average of 30 aircraft a year get banged up badly enough while taxiing to earn spots in the NTSB accident database, and that’s probably just a fraction of the number of insurance claims filed for damage that falls a little short of the Part 830 definition of “substantial.” Inattentive pilots manage to steer their airplanes into other airplanes, hangars, airport signs, and even moving ground vehicles—not to mention potholes, ditches, retaining walls, and snowbanks. Others see their aircraft ground-looped or even flipped by wind gusts, rotor wash, or jet blast they never positioned their controls to counteract. A few more collapse their landing gear by side-loading it during excessively fast turns—or even retract it by mistake while trying to do who knows what.
Of course, there’s no need to damage the aircraft just to get yourself into trouble. At towered airports, the FAA tracks runway incursions, and guess what? They’re fond of blaming GA for the vast majority—some 80 percent of all those attributable to pilot deviations rather than errors by controllers, drivers, or pedestrians. True, most of these could be considered technicalities; fewer than one in 50 requires another aircraft to take any evasive action, but that’s no excuse. The 2 percent that do put aircraft uncomfortably close to each other give a good scare (or worse) to everyone involved—not to mention the fact that having pilots stick their airplanes’ noses where they don’t belong just looks bad. There’s no need to give more ammunition to those already predisposed to regard all light-aircraft operators as reckless, crazy amateurs. Those of us in the business have particularly strong reasons to cultivate rigorous standards of professionalism in our staff and, thereby, our students.
Given that learning how to motor around the airfield’s surface isn’t the sexiest topic in flight training, but there’s clear room for improvement in its actual execution, how is a flight instructor supposed to ensure that students give this the attention it deserves? Part of the answer, of course, is teaching by example. CFIs who write down taxi clearances and enforce a sterile cockpit while those clearances are executed show their students how it’s done by the pros. Conversely, allowing them to tune radios or program the GPS while the aircraft is moving instills the kinds of habits that lead to taxi smacks or awkward phone conversations with ATC. (On the other hand, offering to handle those chores while the student is focused on operating the airplane might be a useful illustration of crew resource management—provided the CFI can still devote sufficient attention to monitoring the student and keeping an eye out for conflicts.)
Outside help is also available. The Air Safety Institute has released an update of its online Runway Safety course. This version has been optimized to run on tablets as well as personal computers and covers just about everything from motivation to best practices and what can happen when those practices are ignored. Expert interviews, a series of case studies, and interactive exercises help keep the mind engaged through a logical progression from why to how and when. Students and newly certificated pilots should find it especially useful, but even experts may discover that they’ve begun taking some dubious shortcuts.
Since the course is free to anyone who wants to take it (AOPA membership not required), might we suggest that your instructors begin assigning it as ground study—preferably in the pre-solo stage? An hour at home plus a 15-minute recap in the classroom could do a lot to help make that trip from ramp to runway as uneventful as it ought to be.