by Kelly Akhund
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2020 issue
Have you ever flown into an airport and found workers on the airfield? Do you ever wonder if they are listening to your radio calls? Do you expect they’ll give you the right of way? These are just some of the questions you should be asking yourself and the answers might not be what you assume.
Workers at airports are essential and are there to help make improvements. However, sometimes the work they conduct can only be done during daylight hours, and on nice warm days. Sounds like a great day to go flying, right?
On those good weather days, work conducted on airfields will sometimes interrupt flight operations. To minimize the disruptions, workers are required to take certain safety steps. Yet, workers are most likely contract employees, and not pilots. That means they might not be familiar with different types of airport operations and procedures. This leaves a gap in the safety chain and it’s up to pilots to help close that gap.
It is important that pilots don’t assume airport workers will give way to aircraft. Sure, they should have been given some sort of training of the happenings at airports, and on who has the right of way. But, think about when you are driving a vehicle. You almost have a sixth-sense and can predict what another vehicle’s future actions might be. This comes from experience. Workers at airports who are not pilots don’t have that experience, and likely don’t know what the next actions of an aircraft will be.
As a pilot operating at an airport with workers present, it is imperative to have a heightened awareness. There are several things pilots can do to help prevent safety from being compromised while aircraft are sharing the same surfaces as vehicles, persons, and/or equipment. Some of these measures are as follows:
Review NOTAMs: Airport managers should file a NOTAM to notify pilots of any atypical, unexpected operations that occur at an airport. This includes, but is not limited to, airport construction projects, airport inspections, airport surveys, lawn maintenance, electrical maintenance, airport marking painting and other work. Reviewing NOTAMs will help pilots know what to expect at an airport. This will allow pilots to proactively plan for an appropriate reaction to the unexpected situation.
Call the airport manager: Before each flight, even if NOTAMs have been reviewed, it’s good practice to call the airport manager to collect information about field conditions and unexpected operations. However, airport managers are busy people, and sometimes conduct multiple jobs for their city. They might not have had the chance to file a NOTAM for a last-minute airport construction or maintenance project. Pilots should not assume that no NOTAM means no hazard, and should call to verify the safety of the airport.
Obtain the most current ATIS/AWOS: Each weather broadcasting system is different and the type determines what information can be broadcasted. Depending on what type is at an airport, there might be useful details regarding airport workers described on the recording. Before approaching an airport, pilots should listen to the broadcasted information and collect as many details as they can about the airport.
Use CTAF: Airport workers should have a radio so they can listen for air traffic and then provide the right of way to them. If the airport has “pilot-controlled-lighting,” activating the lights is another way to get the workers’ attention. It is important for pilots to not only broadcast their location, but also to listen for workers to make radio transmissions. This line of communication is very important and standard phraseology should be used. However, if workers are unfamiliar with “pilot lingo,” the method of communication might have to be altered to tell airport workers what they can expect from an aircraft.
Do a fly by: No, don’t pull a “Top Gun” move!! But, a loop in the traffic pattern might get the airport worker’s eyes in the sky and get you noticed. If workers are on the runway, this should give them some time to vacate and give your aircraft the right of way.
Review current airport diagram: Knowing where you’re going once you get on the ground can be imperative in preventing a runway or taxiway incursion. Even if you are already expecting workers to be operating at the airport, knowing exactly where they are and where you should avoid is just as important.
Look for cones/barriers/“X” on airport surfaces: These types of equipment should be a big indicator that work is being conducted on the airport. When they are seen, a big red flag should go off for pilots and their head should be on a swivel. This is when that handy-dandy airport diagram should come out to make a plan for an alternate route. However, remember that taxiing with heads-down is also posing a huge risk. If pilots approach any of these barriers, they should expect workers and vehicles to be close by. Also, if a vehicle is seen, expect there to be pedestrian workers too.
MnDOT has two contracts that put workers in the runway environment. One is for painting the runways, and if possible, pilots should avoid running their tires over fresh paint. The paint dries quickly, but this is a good time to be not quite on centerline. The other contract is for pavement condition evaluation. This program helps airports determine the remaining life in their pavements and plan for improvements.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable for aircraft to share the same airport surface as workers and vehicles. When this occurs, pilots should use extreme caution. Workers should give aircraft the right of way – but pilots should not let their guard down nor expect it. If there is someone in a vehicle that your aircraft will need to pass, pilots should look for eye contact with the driver to ensure they see the aircraft. Then, proceed with caution. Remember, everyone loses in a collision.
Airport projects, and the workers who conduct them, are inevitable and necessary to maintain a level of standard at an airport. However, that doesn’t mean that safety should be compromised while these projects are conducted.
Aviation is a unique and surprisingly small community. For those who are not familiar with it, like contractors working on an airport construction project, it can be almost like working in a foreign country. This is not only dangerous for the workers, but also for pilots who might have gotten too comfortable and complacent in their own environment. Pilots should always be cautious and try to prepare for unexpected situations. Pilots are key in helping to keep everyone safe in the airport environment.