Decades ago – several more than I care to remember – I had a primary flying instructor who was fond of saying “Don’t stop ‘flying’ the airplane until you switch off the engine and tie it to the ground.”
Some will instinctively know that such a comment suggests tail-dragger operations and I was indeed fortunate to obtain early instruction in classic airplanes. Taxiing properly, especially in gusty wind conditions, and the inherent ground looping tendency of the type demands that care and vigilance be exercised to a significantly greater extent than a conventional tricycle gear aircraft, particularly in takeoff and landing.
With quality instruction, the training benefits of classic aircraft are significant, however, particularly when the early training environment also includes the complexities of a towered airport, and mixed general aviation and commercial transport operations. I remember this time for its rapid and deep learning, which stimulated heightened awareness and vigilance, and provided a solid foundation to accompany the plethora of reading prescribed by my instructor, including the iconic “Stick and Rudder” by Wolfgang Langewiesche, first published in 1944!
I often think of this early training when I read about runway incursions. I hear again that instructor insisting that we were “flying” as long as we were moving. “Head up, eyes outside, and communicate no less carefully and clearly with the ground controller as you do with tower.” Wise words, since incident and accidents on the ground are more likely than in the air, given all the varied players and moving parts. In fact, the FAA states that there were almost 1,800 total runway incursions in 2017 and investigations revealed that two-thirds were caused by pilots.
Those investigations underscored the three major areas contributing to incursions, including failure to comply with ATC instructions, lack of airport familiarity, and nonconformance with standard operating procedures. Maintaining clear and concise pilot-controller communications is fundamental to safe airport surface operations, and English language proficiency is critical.
Miscommunication, or sometimes no communication at all, happens too frequently. Poorly designed airport layouts can add to the hazards, and sometimes busy radio frequencies mean that transmissions are “stepped on”. Standard procedures are there for a reason; pilots must read back their instructions to confirm they are understood and that they are intended for their aircraft and not another. Incidents and risks are enormously varied, and compound quickly at non-towered airports where approach and ground operations are not directed, and thus rely solely on pilots and ground vehicles communicating on an “as required” basis and in accordance with accepted convention.
The importance of verifying “hold short” instructions is of course critical, but other common issues include incorrect runway/taxiway crossing, incorrect spacing between departing and arriving aircraft, incorrect entry or exit of an aircraft/vehicle onto the runway protection area, and even takeoff without an ATC clearance. Throw in the fact that pilots taxiing sometimes do not actually ask Controllers for help when there is confusion, as they can be caught up in checklists, and non-essential chatter with the FO.
An airport undergoing redevelopment or runway re-surfacing adds to incursion potential. A closed taxiway may mean that aircraft need to use runways to get to another open taxiway, and closed taxiways can also result in aircraft needing to backtrack on the runway in use.
One of the most distressing runway incursion accidents happened in 1996 in Quincy, Illinois, which is a non-towered airport using a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). Miscommunication between a landing Beech 1900 and a departing King Air and a third aircraft, became deadly when the King Air’s pilot failed to look for traffic and the 1900’s crew mistakenly assumed a radio transmission confirmed they were okay to land. Both aircraft collided on the intersecting runways and some 12 people tragically lost their lives.
The importance of clear and concise communications and extreme vigilance cannot be overstated, and it is encouraging to see the application of technology to mitigate some of the risks. At some of the largest international airports the use of ground surveillance radar adds greatly to the safety equation. And in flight training we’ve seen Simulated Air Traffic Control Environment (SATCE) technologies being incorporated into the full flight simulator. Nothing, however, can replace vigilance, clear communications and an attitude that “flying” the airplane begins as soon as engines are started and does not stop until they are shut down.
Safe travels, Chris Lehman, CAT Editor in Chief
Published in CAT issue 6/2018