by Zach Schabla
Chief Pilot & Aviation Safety/Pilot Training Manager WisDOT Bureau of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer – Oct/Nov 2016
Each year general aviation pilots account for the vast majority of runway incursions. Results can be disastrous when airplanes, vehicles, or people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pilots are responsible for their safety and the safety of their passengers.
Before keying the microphone, listen and allow yourself to develop an awareness of the current traffic conditions. Plan ahead and anticipate the clearance you will receive from air traffic control (ATC). If the clearance is different than expected, make sure you understand it clearly. Ensure the clearance doesn’t pose a traffic threat. Controllers are highly skilled, but not superhuman. If you’re unsure of your position or clearance, don’t move the airplane.
We all know there are inherent risks when taking to the sky. Our duty in the cockpit is nothing more than recognizing these risks and mitigating them to the best of our ability. Here are the top ways to prevent runway incursions:
See “The Big Picture”
Safely getting in and out of airports can feel like an intricate dance, coordinated by ATC, involving pilot, aircraft and an ever-changing environment. The goal is to not step on any toes and to ensure your toes don’t get stepped on. As pilots, not only do we need to keep our eyes outside the aircraft for potential traffic threats, it is imperative to listen to truly understand the whole story. Monitor both ground and tower communications when possible and visualize what you hear over the radio on your airport diagram.
In the age of ForeFlight and numerous other electronic flight bags (EFB), there’s really no excuse for not having a current airport diagram within reach. However, these devices can be distracting and can dangerously shift our attention inside the cockpit for long periods. Prior to use in the airplane, sufficient time should be spent getting familiar with the operation of your EFB at home.
Seeing the big picture becomes clearer through effective resource management. Whether you are a single pilot or flying with another qualified pilot in the right seat, managing the high workload during taxi, takeoff and landing can be a challenge. Be familiar with the operation of radios and EFBs; listen and look carefully to enhance your situational awareness. Ask your fellow pilot or passengers to help you search for traffic hazards and query ATC if you are unsure of instructions or something just doesn’t sound right. With the big picture in mind, you’ll be far better equipped to anticipate hazards and avoid incursions.
Transmit Clearly & Copy Clearances
Clear communication is essential to avoiding runway incursions. At towered airports, always write down clearances and instructions as they can change frequently. Make your read back complete and easy to understand. Being clear and concise not only keeps you and ATC on the same page, but also aids other pilots in their situational awareness and ability to anticipate your movement around the airport.
If your radio is garbled, try switching radios and check that there are no large obstructions between you and the control tower that may cause interference. If a malfunctioning radio persists, delay the flight until maintenance can be done. Pushing your luck with an unreliable radio greatly increases the potential for miscommunication.
At non-towered airports stick to the phraseology recommended by the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) to reduce frequency congestion and remember that some aircraft may not be equipped with a radio. In these environments it is vital to scan the traffic pattern and final approach path for traffic prior to crossing the hold markings onto a runway. Do not assume traffic is not there just because you don’t hear it.
Listen Carefully & Maintain A Sterile Cockpit
It’s easy to let radio chatter slip into the background when we are running checklists and briefing passengers. If you find this is occurring, turn up the volume or pause your briefing until you’ve taken note of traffic movement around you.
Certain aspects of piloting require reacting immediately and automatically from muscle memory. Reading back and executing a clearance should never be done in this way. The assumption that you will receive the “same old instructions” from the controller is an attitude of complacency and it can be deadly.
Maintaining a sterile cockpit during all taxi, takeoff and landing operations will allow for clear communication between pilot and controller. The airlines make thousands of flights each day to and from the nation’s busiest airports, yet they are responsible for far fewer runway incursions than GA. This can largely be attributed to the airlines’ strict adherence to procedures and sterile rules.
Maintain Situational Awareness & Admit When Lost
In Fayette County, Kentucky on the morning of August 27, 2006, Comair Flight 5191 was assigned runway 22 for departure from Blue Grass Airport. The crew lost situational awareness during taxi and the regional jet attempted to depart Runway 26 instead. Runway 26 was too short for a safe takeoff. The aircraft overran the runway before becoming airborne and crashed, killing all 47 passengers and two of the three crewmembers.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated that the pilots ignored clues that they were on the wrong runway, failed to confirm their position on the runway, and were carrying on a conversation during taxi in violation of “sterile cockpit” procedures. In the aftermath of this tragedy, a procedure was adopted by many airlines to verify the magnetic heading of the runway with the compass prior to takeoff.
Within the airport environment there are many elements vying for our attention that need to be accurately perceived and interpreted in order to maintain situational awareness. It’s easy to become task saturated, especially when operating at an unfamiliar airport. Throw in challenging weather or night operations and you may lose your bearings.
Situational awareness is a moving target and it’s okay to stop and catch your breath. Stop the airplane and ask for progressive taxi instructions or consult your airport diagram and take time to review any hot spots. If you are unsure, ditch the aviation talk and ask ATC in plain English! Bruising your ego is much better than bruising yourself or your airplane.
Understand Signs, Lights & Markings
Understanding the significance of all airport signage, markings and lighting is crucial to runway incursion avoidance. If it has been a while since you last reviewed this information, seek some time with a certified flight instructor and have them go over signs, markings and lighting with you. There are also free runway safety courses available through FAA.gov for you to test your knowledge. The AIM contains a chapter dedicated to airport signs, markings and aeronautical lighting.
Even for the experienced pilot, signage significance and runway markings can be confusing. Maybe you do most of your flying out of a Class D airport. Chances are airport signage, markings and lighting will be very different when venturing into a Class C or B airport.
Maintaining familiarity with all signs and markings is the best practice to avoid incursions. Remember that taxiway lights are blue or green, runway edge lights are white except on instrument runways where yellow lights exist on the last 2,000 feet and finally become red. Also, you need only hold short of an ILS critical area when the ceiling is less than 800 feet, visibility is less than 2 miles or when ATC instructs you to hold short.
Follow Procedures & Never Assume
There is a fine line between anticipation and assumption. The difference is that anticipation is an active process whereas assumption is passive and can lead you down the road to complacency. Anticipating ATC instructions and patterns of traffic flow at an airport will assist you in maintaining situational awareness and an overall safe flight. If you anticipate a clearance to cross a runway and it doesn’t come, you adjust, hold short and ask ATC. Maybe they simply meant to issue a clearance and forgot. To assume clearance across a runway is to invite disaster.
No matter how hard we try, no pilot is exempt from the occasional slip into human error. Our attention span and ability to process information is limited, however, there are ways to mitigate this hazard:
• Establishing or adopting a set of procedures for yourself and sticking to them can go a long way toward the avoidance of runway incursions.
• Maintaining a sterile cockpit by only discussing topics pertinent to the flight with your passengers and fellow pilots when taxiing, taking off or landing. You might also extend your sterile rule to include operations below a certain altitude or within certain lateral limits of an airport.
• Always utilizing a current airport diagram, identifying any hot spots prior to flight. Before taxi, perform a radio check to assure a clear transmission and response.
• Writing down ATC instructions and challenging yourself to scan and verbalize “clear left” or “clear right” before every turn on the ground or in the air. Prior to takeoff, confirm with the compass that you are on the correct runway.
• Coming up with a policy for operating your aircraft’s lights. It is recommended to turn all lights on when crossing or operating on a runway and use of the landing light is encouraged within 10 nm of an airport.
• Developing strategies to deal with long waits. If you find yourself waiting an extended period of time for a new clearance or permission to cross a runway, put your watch on the opposite hand or a sticky note on the instrument panel, as a reminder not to move until clearance is received. Runway incursion avoidance is every pilot’s responsibility and integrating these practices into your flying will help you do your part.