Avoiding Runway Incursions… Make Your Taxi Decisions Part of Your Cross-Country Planning

by Richard Morey
© 2021 October. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine Online October/November 2021 Issue

Runway incursions are on the rise. Much of this increase is associated with almost a year’s inactivity by many general aviation pilots. The shutdown is largely over, and now rusty pilots are flying again.

All skills are perishable, but flying skills seem more perishable than most. The longer you go without practice, the less skill you have.

Rusty pilots are distracted pilots. Distractions can lead to runway incursions. These potentially fatal occurrences are easily preventable. With a little planning and task management, you can simply and easily minimize your risk of missing a hold short line.  

So, what is a runway incursion? The FAA defines a runway incursion as “any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and takeoff of aircraft.”

Let us focus on aircraft, specifically the aircraft you are pilot-in-command of not inadvertently straying onto the protected surface of an active runway.  

Task Management: Don’t Taxi Distracted!

Most runway incursions occur during taxiing. The causes vary but generally at controlled airports are associated with communication failure, pilot disorientation, and misinterpreting ground controls instructions. Uncontrolled airports have different challenges. Taxiing in front of a landing aircraft is probably the most common runway incursion at an uncontrolled (non-towered) airport.  

Why do pilots end up where they should not be? Runways are clearly marked with signs and hold short lines. Airport diagrams are readily available and easily printable. Many GPS units have airport diagrams, and the navigation software programs such as Foreflight have various safe taxi features depending on your subscription level.

If we are paying attention as pilots, we should not miss these obvious clues. The key concept here is paying attention! Another way to say this is, to maintain situational awareness, we must pay attention to our surroundings. Distractions degrade our ability to do so. How do we minimize distractions to maximize our situational awareness?

Eliminate Self-Imposed Distractions

Setting up your radios, GPS, iPad and the like should not be attempted while taxiing. Let me say that again… Setting up your radios, GPS, iPad and the like should not be attempted while taxiing. Yes, it is that important. Multitasking is a myth. We can do several things quickly in succession, but our performance in doing so is degraded. More importantly our ability to notice what is around us – our situational awareness – is reduced. Anytime the aircraft is taxiing, the pilot’s attention should be outside the cabin, not inside!  

We have more and more technology available to us in the flight deck. It is not unusual to have at least one panel-mounted GPS and an iPad or the like with ADS-B in to set up prior to your flight. DO NOT set yourself up for failure. Take the time to set up everything you need prior to taxiing. Yes, I know that you are being charged by the hour for the aircraft. Yes, fuel is expensive. But, as easy as you think taxiing is, taxiing while distracted is a recipe for disaster. I have observed that even simple tasks performed while taxiing will cause pilots to drift off center line…  GPS’s and iPads can absorb your attention, leaving little or no time for other tasks.

At uncontrolled airports, you cannot depend on hearing other aircraft make position reports in the pattern. Pilots have been known to have the wrong frequency tuned in, forget to make transmissions or their transmission may have been stepped on by someone else. Non-radioed aircraft are becoming increasingly rare but are still encountered. It is essential that prior to crossing any runway or taxiing onto a runway for departure, you look carefully for traffic. This is not possible if your attention is inside the cabin.   

Disorientation

Knowing where you are on an airport is critical. If you do not have an airport and taxiway diagram in sight prior to taxiing, you are setting yourself up for failure. Prior to taxi, familiarize yourself with the diagram and consider routes to the active runway or runways. If at a controlled airport, copy down the taxi instructions, and then visualize the route as depicted on the diagram.

I would encourage pilots to request “progressive taxi instructions” whenever they are at an unfamiliar airport. With progressive taxi instructions, the ground controller will give you only one direction at a time. For instance, you might be told to “turn left out of the ramp,” then when the ground controller sees you are complying with their instructions, you get the next instruction, i.e. “take a right on alpha.” The ground controller essentially takes you by the hand and leads you to where you need to go.  

If you still believe you can multitask while taxiing out for takeoff, try this simple test. With another pilot in the right seat, attempt to stay on centerline while setting up a GPS, an iPad or the like. Have your safety pilot note what happens when your attention goes from outside where it should be, to inside. I pretty much guarantee that you will not be able to hold centerline. Now imagine doing this at a strange airport while listening to ground control, trying to read back instructions, and copying a clearance. As you can imagine this test is best performed at a quiet uncontrolled airport.  

Speaking of copying and reading back clearances for instrument pilots, do not try to copy your clearance while taxiing. If asked, let the helpful ground controller know that you “will copy at the end,” which means I will write down and read back the clearance when you are holding short of the runway and no longer taxiing. Again, do not add distraction to your taxiing! 

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance 

How many of you have meticulously planned out a cross-country only to be caught flat footed by ground control? The scenario goes something like this. You have just executed a nice landing on the active runway of a busy tower-controlled airport you have never been to before. You exit at the first convenient taxiway and contact ground control. (Pilot) “XYZ ground, bug smasher N12345 at taxiway alpha.” (Tower) “N12345, where are you parking?” (Pilot) “Ummmm, the FBO?”  

Too often flight planning begins at takeoff and ends at landing. Most likely you know which FBO you want to go to at your destination. It is useful to familiarize yourself with the airport and taxiway diagram, note where the FBO you wish to go to is located, and plan likely routes from various runways. In planning this, take into account your aircraft’s landing distance, and decide which taxiways you are most likely going to be in a position to make. Have the name of the FBO written on our airport diagram. It is surprisingly easy to forget. Having that information easily at hand will eliminate or minimize disorientation, and the associated distraction and embarrassment of not knowing where you are going.  

In Summary…

1) Set your aircraft radios and electronics prior to taxi.
2) Keep your attention outside the cabin while taxiing, not inside.
3) Especially at uncontrolled airports, look for traffic prior to crossing or taxiing onto any runway.
4) Always have an airport and taxiway diagram out and visible while taxiing.
5) Delay reading back a clearance until after you are no longer moving.
6) Familiarize yourself with your location and probable route of taxi.
7) Plan your route of taxi on landing.
8) When in doubt, ask for progressive taxi instructions.

By following these simple steps, you will minimize distractions, disorientation, and make it far more likely that you will not be the cause of a runway incursion.  

Much of the subject matter in this article is from personal experience. Much is from several online safety seminars conducted through the Wisconsin and Minnesota Safety Teams.   

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual, and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Morey was born into an aviation family. He is the third generation to operate the family FBO and flight school, Morey Airplane Company at Middleton Municipal Airport – Morey Field. Among Richard’s diverse roles include charter pilot, flight instructor, and airport manager. He holds an ATP, CFII, MEII, and is an Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic (A&P) with Inspection Authorization (IA). Richard has been an active flight instructor since 1991 with over 15,000 hours instructing, and almost 19,000 hours total time. Of his many roles, flight instruction is by far his favorite! Comments are welcomed via email at Rich@moreyairport.com or by telephone at 608-836-1711. (www.MoreyAirport.com) 

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