April 2017 Issue

Is This The Right Runway?

Weather, fatigue, last-minute ATC requests and many more in-cockpit distractions can contribute to touching down in the wrong spot.

A36 Bonanza Runway

D. Miller/Creative Commons

It was in the news recently: Noted actor and aviation proponent Harrison Ford, while arriving at an airport on the west coast, reportedly landed on a taxiway, not the assigned runway. Oops! Dissecting that event is not this article’s purpose. But it did get me to wonder: How often does this happen? Why does it happen? What can we as pilots do to minimize the opportunities for this type of event to happen to us?

So I did some research, one conclusion from which is we all are human and humans err, apparently in anything from a small two-seat single to Boeings, and everything in between. I went to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System web site, asrs.arc.nasa.gov, and used the database search function to come up with a list of reports involving landings on taxiways. Let’s see what we can learn from a few selected reports.


September 2016: An airplane identified as a “Small Aircraft, High Wing, 1 Eng, Fixed Gear, Crew of 1, flying under FAR 91” landed on a taxiway at Boeing Field/King County International (KBFI) in Seattle, Wash. The report discussed the unfamiliarity of transient pilots with the intricacies of parallel taxiways and runways at Boeing Field. In reviewing the airport diagram, Boeing Field has several “hotspots” denoted (see the airport diagram on the opposite page). What is a hotspot? Why do you care?

The FAA defines a hotspot as “a runway safety-related problem area or intersection on an airport. Typically it is a complex or confusing taxiway/taxiway or taxiway/runway intersection.” The FAA has seen a history of errors at that particular location on that particular airport and they want to warn you. If other pilots have made mistakes at that intersection, chances are you will too, unless you are vigilant. Hence the hotspot. Yes, you can get burned there.

Airport Diagram

Hot spots exist, according to the FAA, because, “A confusing condition may be compounded by a miscommunication between a controller and a pilot, and may cause an aircraft separation standard to be compromised. The area may have a history of surface incidents or the potential for surface incidents. This may be due to any mix of causes: airport geometry; ground traffic flow; markings, signage or lighting; or human factors. As the Boeing Field airport diagram above depicts, two locations at the facility are designated as hot spots. In addition to airport diagrams, popular electronic flight bag software can be configured to alert pilots as they approach a hot spot. Additional information can be found in the FAA’s Airport/Facility Directory.

Last minute requests

June 2016: A Beech King Air was cleared to land at an unspecified tower-controlled airport. The pilot was on an IFR clearance and accepted a visual approach. The controller asked him to fly across the final approach course and then rejoin (a modified S-turn is how the pilot described it) to increase separation between the King Air and another aircraft landing on another, intersecting runway. The pilot accepted the request and did so. He thought he had reacquired the runway in use, but actually lined up and landed on the parallel taxiway. Thankfully, no other aircraft was on that taxiway so the landing and roll out were embarrassing, yet uneventful.

I will assume all of us want to be good pilots and helpful to others, but sometimes that can be a bad decision, a recipe for a mishap. The pilot of the King Air most likely was set up for a straight-in instrument approach, and had he maintained that with an instrument back-up (an ILS, localizer or GPS procedure), lining up visually to a taxiway probably would not have occurred. But in his desire to help, he lost his setup to the runway, and tried to reacquire it, obviously unsuccessfully.

Be aware in your flying that giving up a known (a line up to a runway, with a navigational aid to help) for an unknown (a modified S-turn that causes you to lose your alignment to the runway) can have a very different ending than expected. The one word that we as pilots hate to use is the word “unable” when talking to ATC. Yet it is okay to do so. Maybe if this pilot had said he was unable to safely make the S-turn, ATC could have figured a different way to keep the two airplanes safely separated.

Field Conditions

March 2016: An instructor and student were flying in a single-engine airplane to the David Wayne Hooks Airport, in the Houston, Texas, area. It was near dusk. Recent heavy rains had closed one runway, and lights were inoperative at the field due to the rains.

The instructor and student were advised by the tower of the runway in use, and reminded of the closed runway. No mention was made in the narrative of whether the inoperative lights were discussed, although it most likely was in the Notams for that airport. (You do review the Notams anytime you fly, even at your home airport, right? I thought so.) The instructor and student lined up for and landed on a taxiway between the two parallel runways.

Any time you fly, even when everything is normal—the weather is great, all runways are open, all lights are operative, etc.—things can go wrong. But when anything is abnormal—closed runways, no lighting—that’s when your “what could possibly go wrong” radar should be turned up full blast. Things can go wrong quickly, so be aware and stay extra cautious.

At Your Own Risk

October 2012: A Piper PA-28 was flying into Montgomery Field, near San Diego, Calif., VFR at night. The pilot contacted SoCal Approach due to his inability to acquire the airport visually. He apparently was disoriented, and had turned north, away from the airport. The aircraft was vectored back toward the airport and handed off to the tower. The pilot was told that he was landing “at your own risk” on Runway 28L. Runway 28R was closed for repairs, yet it was the only runway at the time with operable runway edge lights. Runway 28L had no edge lights, only REILs (runway end identifier lights), which were on at the time. The pilot lined up and landed on a parallel taxiway.

What kind of landing clearance is “at your own risk?” Have you ever been told that by a controller? If you do hear that phrase, wake up! Those little hairs on the back of your neck should be raised, as that nice controller is giving you a warning (as well as covering himself/herself should things not go well). It is vitally important to understand that when those words are used, it is not a landing clearance.

I am not saying to never land if a controller uses those words. Every time we land at an uncontrolled field it is at our own risk, and we all accept that. What the controller is saying is you are planning to do something—i.e., land in a location where ATC cannot confirm the condition of the surface, or see you land—so they are not accepting responsibility for keeping you clear of people and things. Be extra vigilant when those words are used.

Fatigue and illness

October 2009: A Boeing 767 was returning from a long, all-night, backside-of-the-clock international flight. The flight required an additional pilot because it was scheduled for in excess of eight hours. During the flight, one of the three pilots became incapacitated by illness, so the two remaining pilots flew the entire flight with no crew rest.

In addition to being fatigued, ATC gave the crew a number of runway changes during the 767’s approach, requiring numerous inputs to the flight management system. While on approach to Runway 27L, the crew was offered a side-step to land on Runway 27R. The crew was not aware the Runway 27R approach lights and the ILS were inoperative when they accepted what appeared to be a simple shift to another parallel runway. Instead, they landed on a parallel taxiway.

Later it was determined the blue LED lights on the parallel taxiway actually appeared white from the air, providing the crew a miscue. There were other lights providing what appeared from the air to be runway centerline lighting.

Sick and tired is no time for a runway shift. I am sure that, in retrospect, these pilots wish they had stayed with the runway for which they had finally set up. Side-stepping in visual conditions to a parallel runway seems simple, yet it wasn’t in this case. If you find yourself flying and you are sick, tired or you just did not bring your A game with you, keep it simple with ATC. If they unintentionally overload you, tell them so. They really are there to help you, not to help set you up for failure.

Those Who Have and Will

I hope that in reading this you understand that I know that I am not throwing stones from my glass house. There, but for the Grace of God, go I. In fact, landing on the wrong runway is a lot like landing gear-up: There are those who have and those who will. What I hope I have done is point out some things to think about the next time you fly so you can avoid writing similar reports.

And to expand the discussion a bit, in addition to incorrect landings at airports of intended landing, I wondered how often the events of this type involves landing at the wrong airport. But let’s save that for another issue.

Terry Hand is a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter and instructor pilot. His current day job for a major airline requires a type rating in the Boeing 757/767.

But I Don’t Fly Into Towered Airports!

As you read this article, you might say to yourself, “All of these incidents were at towered, high-density airports. I never go there. I am ‘just’ a VFR pilot.” Well, let’s see if there is anything in this article that applies to you.
Do you fly at dusk? Have you ever been in the pattern and had some guy ask you on CTAF to extend your pattern as he needs to get in ahead of you? Do you fly where they do work on the airport, repairing runways and taxiways? Do you fly into any airports that issue Notams? Have you ever realized after you took off that you just weren’t feeling that great?
I rest my case. All these factors—and more—can contribute by themselves or in concert with other abnormalities to landing on a taxiway, the wrong runway or even the wrong airport.

Tips For Avoiding Wrong-Runway Embarrassment

At best, landing on the wrong runway is embarrassing. Consider using these tips to help ensure you’re where you’re supposed to be.
1. Load and activate the published approach, if any, for the planned runway, and use cockpit instrumentation to confirm you’re nearing the correct one.
2. Many electronic flight bag applications offer to display an airport’s extended runway centerlines. Implement and use this feature, especially at night.
3. Always crosscheck with your heading indicator to confirm you’re aligned with the intended runway.
4. Use the airport’s published diagram or other graphic aid to identify hotspots or other “gotchas” during your preflight planning.
5. Use extra care at dusk/dawn or in low-visibility conditions. If in doubt, ask ATC or go around. Reject last-minute requests by ATC to change runways.
6. Make verifying the correct runway part of your landing checklist, just as with landing gear and fuel.

At Your Own Risk

So what’s up with ATC telling you something is “at your own risk?” Is that some kind of rude reminder you’re not as good as you think you are, an infrequent technicality controllers must highlight or something to which we should respond with even greater caution? All of the above.
According to paragraph 3-3-2 of the FAA’s Air Traffic Control order, JO 711.65W:

3-3-2. CLOSED/UNSAFE RUNWAY INFORMATION If an aircraft requests to takeoff, land, or touch-and-go on a closed or unsafe runway, inform the pilot the runway is closed or unsafe, and
a. If the pilot persists in his/her request, quote him/her the appropriate parts of the Notam applying to the runway and inform him/her that a clearance cannot be issued.
b. Then, if the pilot insists and in your opinion the intended operation would not adversely affect other traffic, inform him/her that the operation will be at his/her own risk.
- RUNWAY (runway number) CLOSED/UNSAFE. If appropriate, (quote NOTAM information)