CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

©Jay Hopkins – All rights reserved

Originally published in Flying March, 2001

My flight from Tucson to Ciudad Obregon was similar to other trips as a corporate pilot flying a Cessna 414 mostly in Mexico. The weather was beautiful and I had quickly cleared customs in Hermosillo. I had not encountered any other traffic the entire trip. On final and cleared to land at Ciudad Obregon, I was enjoying the smoothness of the late afternoon air. Because I speak Spanish, I was aware that one of the local Cessna 206s was on final for the crossing runway. I located the other plane and confirmed that I would land well before he did. Final checks complete, the big Cessna flared nicely and then touched down gently on the runway. I had just begun braking when I was shocked to see a 206 touching down on the crossing runway. Obviously I had been watching the wrong plane. As we approached a collision at the intersection we both had slowed sufficiently that we could each make a turn onto the other runway, thus avoiding each other. While this close encounter was due to controller error, this would not have helped those of us on the two aircraft if things had not turned out as well as they did.

There has been a growing awareness of the problem of runway incursions over the last year. The FAA formed a Runway Incursion Team to address the problem, and other significant players in the aviation industry have been trying to help make some headway in this area. The result—the headline on today’s USA Today reads “Close Calls On Rise.” After all that hard work the number of near-collisions on our country’s runways has increased by 31% over last year! Even if the increase is due to better reporting and record keeping, that does not alter the fact that we face a serious problem and all the current attention on this problem has not significantly reduced the number of incursions and near-collisions. General aviation accounts for over half of the runway incursions, and it is important to keep in mind that when an airliner and a small plane tangle, the small plane never wins.

Recently the FAA issued a Safety of Flight Bulletin for General Aviation (#FSGA00-06) on “Increased Surveillance and Testing of Surface Movements Operations.” In this bulletin, the FAA requires that all pilots being evaluated by an FAA Inspector or Designated Pilot Examiner be tested on safe airport surface movements. This means that if you go for any written exam or flight check you are supposed to be tested in this area. The FAA is also going to issue a new advisory circular on this subject, and is reviewing pilot/controller communications and other areas associated with this problem. The new runway incursion prevention and testing program includes ten “best practices” which can be organized into four major groups: Basic Knowledge, Preflight Planning, Taxi Clearance and Taxiing (before takeoff and after landing):

BASIC KNOWLEDGE

I think one reason many pilots may be weak in their basic knowledge of airport operations is that our attention during flight training is naturally focused on what happens in the air. The ground markings section of the AIM probably does not receive a lot of attention during flight training and even less thereafter. So whether you are a student pilot studying for your private license or an ATP rated airline pilot with years of experience, take some time to revisit Chapter Two, Section Three of the AIM which covers Airport Marking Aids and Signs. If it has been a while since you have been there you might be surprised at the amount of information it contains. There are twenty-eight pages with color illustrations covering taxiway and runway markings, holding position markings, and the six different kinds of signs used on airports. A review of this section is especially critical if you normally operate out of small uncontrolled airports and are planning a trip to a large airport. When you have Section Three of the AIM under control, turn to Chapter Four, Section Three and review Airport Operations. Pay particular attention to the paragraphs on Intersection Takeoffs, Land and Hold Short Operations, Communications, Taxiing, Taxi During Low Visibility and Exiting Runway After Landing.

PREFLIGHT PLANNING

As you prepare for a flight, keep in mind the potential risks associated with surface operations. Check the NOTAMs for any information on runway or taxiway closures, any construction areas or any changes in the CTAF frequency. If possible, review a map of the airport layout for both the departure and destination airports, and keep that map available for reference in the cockpit. This is not a problem for IFR pilots, as the airport diagram is included on the approach plate, but VFR pilots can find it difficult to access this information. One alternative is to purchase a commercial airport guide containing airport diagrams. The Air Safety Foundation is also working on this problem and is making airport diagrams available to all pilots on its web site. One advantage of this approach is that you can print the diagram out and then mark any construction areas or closed runways or taxiways on the diagram. If you have any questions about a complicated diagram or NOTAM, call the tower or other knowledgeable person and clarify what is going on before you get in the airplane. This is especially true at an uncontrolled field where you may not be able to get information on the radio.

TAXI CLEARANCE

Once you get your engine(s) started, give the process of getting and understanding your taxi clearance the attention it deserves. It is hard to concentrate if you are trying to do two things at once, so don’t start taxiing or try to accomplish other tasks while listening to your taxi clearance. I always use a kneeboard and write down at least the winds and the runway I am cleared to along with any crossing information. Don’t forget to read back any runway crossing or hold short instructions, and if there is even the slightest doubt in your mind about what you are supposed to do, ask for clarification. At an unfamiliar airport, simply state that you are “unfamiliar” and request progressive taxi instructions. The controller will guide you step by step all the way to the runway. At an uncontrolled field, if you are uncertain about where to go after starting your engine(s), you can often get advice on the CTAF frequency.

TAXIING

Before you get underway, turn on your rotating beacon and your strobe lights unless they will interfere with the night vision of other pilots in the vicinity. Focus on the job at hand and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by trying to accomplish your preflight checks while taxiing. The only items which need to be accomplished during taxi are to check the brakes as you start forward, monitor the gyro instruments and compass for proper operation during turns and perhaps accomplish a thrust reverser check in a jet. Everything else should be done before you start moving or after you get to the runup area. This allows you to concentrate on where you are going and increases your awareness of any aircraft or vehicles in your area. Whenever you approach a runway or taxiway, look carefully for any crossing or opposing traffic. At an uncontrolled field, broadcast your intention to cross a runway well before you actually enter the runway and check carefully in both directions before you cross.

As you approach the runup area, make sure that no part of the airplane extends past the hold short line. If the controller becomes aware that any part of your aircraft is extending past a hold line, he will stop operations on that runway until you are clear and may issue a violation. It is a good idea to park so that you can check the final approach one last time as you taxi onto the runway. If you have any question about a takeoff clearance, stop and confirm with the controller what was intended. Monitor the tower frequency closely and be alert for any indication another aircraft may have been cleared to take off or land on the same runway. Be particularly leery of “Position and Hold” clearances as they put you in a position where you are no longer able to see the final approach area. I always taxi forward very slowly and if I am still not cleared for takeoff as I approach the center of the runway I stop at an angle so I can still see the final approach path. Intersection takeoffs also provide an opportunity for error. In a recent accident at Sarasota-Bradenton Airport, the tower cleared a Cessna 172 for takeoff from the end of the runway. Another Cessna 172 was waiting to takeoff at an intersection 1,200 feet down the same runway. That pilot thought the transmission was for him and also taxied onto the runway. All four people on both aircraft were killed in the collision which followed.

Uncontrolled fields call for even greater vigilance in all directions as someone may decide to land downwind or on a crossing runway no matter what the “active” is. Broadcast your intention to takeoff and which runway you are using on the CTAF and listen carefully for any response. Then check the final approach path carefully as you begin to taxi onto the runway. Once you are lined up on the runway, check the approach path for any intersecting runways.

When you arrive at your destination, exercise the same vigilance and care during your approach, landing and while taxiing to the ramp. Listen to the ATIS or monitor the CTAF frequency to get the airport information as early as possible, and then use that information to plan your approach to the airport. Decide ahead of time which way to exit the runway and how to get to your parking place. Monitor the frequency and be alert for anyone landing or taking off on the same runway or an intersecting runway. After you land, make sure that you taxi completely past the hold line as you exit the runway, then stop and get your taxi clearance unless it has already been provided by the tower. At any time, if you have the slightest doubt about where you are or where you are supposed to be going, stop immediately. This is especially true when approaching any runway. Even if you think you are cleared across, it never hurts to call as you are approaching the intersection to make sure.

Ground operations may seem like an insignificant obstacle to getting in the air, but the close encounters, accidents and fatalities which occur every year prove otherwise. You may make a mistake or get confused, or someone else may not be clear on what they are supposed to do. There are a few pilots who will cut every corner to save a few seconds. Careful attention to the details while taxiing, taking off and landing will ensure that you make it safely into the air and back to the ramp at your destination.