Before we can fly, we probably have to taxi. At sleepy, non-towered facilities, getting from the ramp to the runway and vice versa usually isn’t much of a challenge unless the surface’s condition poses one. Meanwhile, towered facilities and larger airports bring their own challenges.
At the same time, juggling the pre-takeoff checklist with setting up the cockpit and navigating your way across active runways and busy taxiways is a recipe for a runway incursion, or worse. Recognizing all this, let’s review some of the procedures and technologies in use at various airports to help prevent problems during ground operations.
First off, it’s important to understand ground operations demand your full attention. The sterile cockpit concept, which commercial and other high-volume operators use, eliminates all non-essential conversation when at or below 10,000 feet above the airport elevation during departures and arrivals. It’s also a good way to approach most ground operations. Whether airborne or taxiing, yucking it up with another pilot or with passengers distracts your attention from the tasks at hand. The same is true when configuring the airplane for takeoff or, especially, an IFR departure (see Tom Turner’s article beginning on page 12 of this issue for more).
Too often, pilots think of ground operations as not worthy of their full attention. Results can include rolling off the end of a taxiway into ditches and soft ground, missing turns, crossing active runways without a clearance, taxiing into other aircraft and—almost as bad in our opinion—being forced to admit to ATC you’re not where you’re supposed to be. When in doubt, stop and ask the controller for directions. At unfamiliar airports, feel free to ask for “progressive” taxi instructions from ground control, whether arriving or departing.
In any event, pull up the published airport diagram and plot your taxi path from the ramp to the departure runway. Many avionics and portable device applications these days incorporate easy-to-use aids to either graphically highlight your taxiing intentions or overlay your position on the chart. These tools make ground ops at busy, unfamiliar airports a snap, even at night.
Non-towered airports often can be just as confusing if you’re not familiar with them, although they may not have an official airport diagram published. Still, you can use various other references—the inset diagram from an approach plate and even airport directories published by various state aviation departments often work well.
While you’re taxiing is not a good time to enter a flight plan into the GPS or perform a rolling run-up. In the former situation, it’s highly likely you’ll miss something associated with both tasks, taxiing and programming. In the latter, you’re placing undue stress on the brakes and tires, and increasing your risk of losing control. In either situation, take a few extra moments on the ramp or in the run-up block to enter a flight plan before taxiing or running the pre-takeoff checklist.
External lighting is another area where we can be both courteous and professional. Before starting the engine, I always ensure my rotating beacon is on (I usually just leave the switch on, so that any time the master switch is energized, so is the beacon). On a busy ramp, with a marshaller, I leave the other lights off until I’m ready to taxi to help protect his or her night vision. When I am ready, on come the nav lights (at night), followed by at least one taxi light.
Once the marshaller has released me, I’ll turn on other taxi and/or landing lights to help guide me to and keep me on the centerline. When I stop in the run-up area, I switch off those lights until I’m ready to taxi again, to help minimize any impact on pilots in other aircraft. At night, if I’m cleared to “line up and wait,” all my lights go on, perhaps with the exception of landing lights. Once I’m cleared for takeoff, then the landing lights come on, too, and away we go. It’s also a good idea to turn on all your exterior lights when crossing a runway.
Ensure the airplane is properly configured and the controls properly positioned to minimize the effects of a strong wind—before releasing the brakes to taxi. Once you’re rolling, pay attention to where you’re going and ensure the airplane stays on the taxiway centerline. Follow the yellow brick (or concrete or asphalt) road.
Slow The *%$# Down!
One of my personal pet peeves is the guy or gal who rolls down the taxiway to the departure runway at the speed of heat, only to sit in the penalty box for 15 minutes awaiting an IFR release. Doing so may save you a minute or two on the Hobbs meter, but can forever label a pilot as impatient and careless. Monitor your GPS-derived groundspeed readout; there’s no reason whatsoever to exceed 20 knots while taxiing. Use the minimum amount of power to get and keep things rolling on the taxiway.
Slow and steady wins this race, especially since, almost by definition, you’re going to have a tailwind when taxiing for departure. If the wind is at all strong, it will not only increase your speed on the taxiway but also will make stopping at the run-up area more difficult and stressful on the tires, brakes, passengers and pilot. Taxiing for takeoff and the takeoff itself is when the airplane is at its heaviest and when heat-generated stress on tires is greatest.
Taxiing in proximity to other aircraft always increases the risk of a collision, but that’s not the only reason to keep some space between them. Especially when following another aircraft, no matter how large, keep your distance. The so-called “breakaway” thrust heavier aircraft need to overcome their inertia and start taxiing can send all sorts of stuff—dust, rocks, water—downwind of their engines. If you’re too close, your airplane can easily be damaged and, in extreme cases, lifted off the ground or flipped over. It’s happened.
Following even a similar airplane too closely isn’t a good idea, either. When was the last time you saw an airplane with brake lights? A moment’s inattention in your cockpit means you may not notice the brakes have been applied in the cockpit ahead of you. Keep your distance—in all directions—from other aircraft. If in doubt, shut down (after advising ground control at a towered airport), get out and inspect the clearance between your airplane and the others. Remember: Unless your aircraft has reversing thrust capability—and you can see what’s behind you—it’s unlikely you can back up easily or safely.
Ground operations near other aircraft are common, whether on the parking ramp or in the run-up area. Always ensure your prop blast isn’t aimed at an airplane behind you or an open hangar, and position your own airplane so that someone else’s run-up doesn’t have you in the paint shop next week.
Where to stop
Once we’re taxiing, one question becomes when and where to stop. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen aircraft roll past the hold-short or ILS critical signs and lines on taxiways, or stop short of them when exiting the runway. You’re technically not clear of the runway on which you just landed if any portion of your aircraft isn’t on the taxiway side of the hold-short line.
Likewise, you’re technically on the runway if just your nosewheel is on or beyond the hold-short line. In no case, however, should you exit a runway when there’s a potential conflict with other traffic on the ground. Come to a stop on the runway—as long as you’re on it, it’s yours—and use the radio to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes, ATC plans for you to exit the runway at a different taxiway further down the runway and may allow other traffic to create a potential problem. Pay attention to any instructions from the tower or, if at a non-towered facility, announce which taxiway you plan to use to clear the runway.
Another thing to keep in mind when taxiing is the position at which you want to be stopped may come up rather quickly, especially at night, when depth perception is more difficult. When following another aircraft, the only light you may see is its tail-mounted navigation light. Unless the aircraft is using a rotating beacon or other lighting, it may be impossible to judge your distance.
Ground operations are a necessary part of flying, but too many pilots tend to think of them as unimportant, perhaps comparing them to driving a car. They’re not unimportant, just different. Since objects and other aircraft are much closer to us when we’re on taxiing, we should approach ground ops with the same or better care we reserve for getting and being airborne.