Anyone who’s spent much time using a personal airplane for transportation has—at least once—found themselves disoriented when maneuvering to land at an unfamiliar airport. Among the challenges can be picking out the right runway, especially if there are multiple choices.
Operations into strange-to-us airports can generate lots of confusion. That’s especially true when the runway configuration isn’t what we’re used to. An example might involve someone accustomed to a single runway who suddenly must cope with intersecting pavement, or where two runway thresholds are adjacent to each other, even though they’re oriented approximately 90 degrees apart.
What we expect to see—a runway threshold—is exactly what we’ll find. Closer examination, however, can reveal it’s not the one we expected. At that point, we have some choices: We can attempt to maneuver to land on the runway we’ve just spotted, we can go around and come back for another attempt or we can continue to land on the runway we’ve been eyeing during our approach. Probably the safest thing to do is the go-around. We might not endear ourselves to anyone, but we’ll likely be around after the landing to discuss it.
The last thing we should is perform abrupt maneuvers, close to the ground, and try to land on a runway for which we’re not in proper position. If ATC has cleared us to land on a different runway than we’re approaching, we technically need a different clearance and either should request it or execute the go-around, then confess our mistake and request instructions. At no point should we try to do something beyond our or the airplane’s capabilities, just to comply with a clearance.
On May 10, 2010, at 1930 Central time, a Cirrus SR22 collided with the ground while maneuvering on final approach to Runway 22 at the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Regional Airport, (TCL). Visual conditions prevailed. The pilot had received flight following services from ATC during the flight, which departed the Kendall – Tamiami Executive Airport (TMB) in Miami, Fla., at 1704 Eastern time. The private pilot and one passenger were killed in the accident.
Transcripts between the pilot and tower controllers at TCL reveal the pilot contacted the tower at 1925, reporting 12 miles out, inbound for a full-stop landing. The controller instructed the pilot to report “your base leg to runway 22.” The pilot replied, “Uh okay runway two two’s going to be a straight in for us uh sir.” The controller replied, “How about a three-mile straight-in final to runway two two.” The pilot replied, “You got it three-mile straight-in for runway two two.”
At 1927, the pilot informed the controller that he had a visual on the airport, that he was too close and that he needed to make a 360-degree turn to lose altitude. The controller approved the turn and instructed the pilot to report when back on final to Runway 22. At 1929, the pilot informed the controller he had completed the turn and he was on a three-mile final to Runway 22. The controller issued a landing clearance, which the pilot acknowledged. There was no further communication between the pilot and the controller.
According to the controller’s statement, the pilot acknowledged the clearance to land. He scanned the runway, checked that the runway lights were set to pilot control lighting and looked for the airplane on final approach. He observed the airplane well left of course on short final, in a turn that subsequently took the airplane right of course. The airplane was about 50 feet from the end of the runway when the left wing dipped and the airplane appeared to flip over and collide with the ground.
A witness at the airport heard the pilot say over the radio that he was going to make a 360-degree turn. The controller instructed the pilot to land on Runway 22. It appeared to the witness that the pilot was coming in on Runway 29. The witness heard the engine rev up. It looked as if the pilot was trying to turn back to Runway 22, and the airplane entered a nose-dive straight into the ground. The airplane collided with the ground in a nose-down, left-wing-low attitude.
The 40-year-old private pilot had a total of 814.7 hours of experience; 542 hours were in the Cirrus, of which 338.5 were in the SR20 and 203.5 in the SR22. The pilot had flown 53.2 hours in the last 90 days, and 41.4 hours in the last 30 days. This was the first time he had flown to TCL.
The 1953 TCL surface weather observation included wind from 060 degrees at three knots, visibility of 10 miles, clear sky, temperature 15 deg. C, dew point 11 deg. C, and altimeter 30.12 inches of mercury.
Examination of data recorded by the SR22’s primary flight display (PFD) depicted the accident sequence. Approximately 5.3 nm from TCL, the airplane entered a 360-degree left turn from a heading of 320 degrees, descending from 3800 feet to approximately 2200 feet. Coming out of the turn, the airplane was established on a heading of approximately 300 degrees. Approximately four seconds from the end of the recording, at 1930:53, the airplane entered a sharp left bank, going from 14.4 degrees right wing down to 47.8 degrees left wing down, while the aircraft’s pitch attitude decreased pitch from 10.2 degrees nose-up to 1.2 degrees nose-up.
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s failure to maintain adequate airspeed while maneuvering to land, which resulted in an aerodynamic stall/spin and collision with the ground.” And that’s fairly obvious from the record. But it doesn’t explain why the pilot failed to maintain a safe airspeed.
Arriving TCL after a flight from Florida would place the SR22 to the southeast of the airport, heading roughly northwest. In other words, roughly aligned for a straight-in approach to Runway 29. In fact, the pilot apparently mistook TCL’s Runway 29 for Runway 22 when he told the local controller he was making a straight-in approach. Upon realizing his error, the pilot attempted a steep turn to align with Runway 22, the one on which he’d been cleared to land. Instead, he stalled the SR22, from too low an altitude to recover.
We’ll never know, but it’s likely the pilot was attempting to comply with his landing clearance, above all else. He was aiming to please, when he should have been going around.