by Paul M. Foster, Jr.,
Preventing runway incursions is one of the FAAs highest priorities. Though relatively small in number when compared to the high level of traffic that moves safely through the nations airports every day, runway incursions present a special challenge. Not only do they have the potential to put lives at risk due to the number and proximity of aircraft operating on the airport surface, but they also take place in a complex and dynamic environment.
Pilots are trained to carefully plan the en route portion of their flight, and the FAAs Office of Runway Safety & Operational Services is stressing the importance of using the same type of careful planning for ground operations. That office recently published a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) that emphasize safe surface operations. Those SOPs are summarized in the sidebar at the end of the story.
The FAA defines a runway incursion as any occurrence on the airport runway environment involving an aircraft, vehicle, person or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in a loss of required separation with an aircraft taking off, intending to take off, landing or intending to land. By this definition, a runway incursion necessarily involves a conflict occurring in the airports movement area.
From an operational perspective, a towered airport is divided into two distinct areas. The movement area is under control by ATC and usually includes the runways and taxiways. The other area, the non-movement area, usually includes taxi lanes, aprons, ramps and other areas-basically everything not included in the movement area. In this area movement of aircraft or vehicles is the responsibility of pilots, mechanics, the aircraft operator or airport management.
At most towered airports, the movement and non-movement areas are separated by a solid yellow line and a dashed yellow line (see sidebar).
The FAA broadly defines a surface incident as encompassing all movement areas (including runways and taxiways) and is any event where unauthorized or unapproved movement occurs within the movement area, or an occurrence in the movement area associated with the operation of an aircraft that affects or could affect the safety of flight. Surface incidents may be caused by pilots, by vehicle drivers or pedestrians, or by ATC. The FAA further classifies a surface incident as either a runway incursion or a non-runway incursion.
How Big A Problem Is This?
Perhaps the most infamous runway incursion accident was the 1977 collision of two loaded 747s at the Los Rodeos Airport on the Spanish island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. More than 580 died.
Although airline operations involved in runway incursions make the headlines-and get the FAAs closest attention-general aviation is not immune.On November 22, 1994, a TWA MD-82 was rolling for takeoff on Runway 30R at the Lambert-St Louis (Mo.) International Airport when it collided with a Cessna 441 holding in position for takeoff. In this instance, the Cessna pilot wasnt where he was supposed to be, incorrectly believing that he was assigned Runway 30R for takeoff, instead of Runway 31, to which he had been given a clearance. There were two fatalities.
According to the FAAs most recent study of runway incursions, the overall number and rate of general aviation runway incursions decreased over the four-year period studied, which included fiscal years 2000 through 2003. Thats the good news. The bad news is that even though the number of Category A and B pilot deviations involving general aviation aircraft has decreased since FY 2001, incursions involving general aviation aircraft still represented the majority of such deviations during the period. The FAA considers a Category A runway incursion event to require extreme action to avoid a collision, or a collision actually occurs. A Category B runway incursion is one involving significant potential for a collision.
From FY 2000 through FY 2003, 75 percent (1112 incursions) of 1475 events involved at least one general aviation aircraft. The number and rates of these general aviation runway incursions have steadily decreased since FY 2001. The rate of incursions involving two general aviation aircraft also started to decrease in FY 2001 and stabilized at fewer than four such incursions per million operations, despite the decrease of nearly two million general aviation operations nationally.
Where Do You Fit In?
One of the keys to avoiding a runway incursions-or worse-is really pretty simple: Know where you are and where youre going. Unless youre operating from a grass strip near East Bucktooth, your airport probably has some kind of chart depicting the taxiways and runways. Get a copy from the airport manager, the FBO or the flight school you use. If one doesnt exist, create one.
Both Jeppesen and the FAA publish taxi charts for larger, busier airports as part of their collections of instrument approach procedures. Borrow one, steal one or make a copy and stash it in your flight bag. If all else fails and your airport has a published instrument approach procedure, the small airfield diagram printed on the chart can be extremely useful. Regardless of what chart you use, use it. Know where you are, where youre going and how to get there before releasing the brakes to taxi.
Even with a current taxi chart for the Big City International Airport at which you just landed, dont be the least bit afraid to ask for progressive taxi instructions. Even if the ground controller audibly sighs at your request on the frequency, that sound is nothing compared to the one youll hear if someone lands on top of you, or you taxi into the path of a 767 exiting a high-speed taxiway.
Of course, the average GA pilot operates to and from a non-towered airport where things like taxi and takeoff clearances, movement areas and hold lines simply dont exist. Still, runway incursions occur at these airports.
At such facilities, its still important that pilots pay attention to where they are and where theyre going. Also, use the local CTAF to self-announce your position in the pattern and on the airport, even when taxiing and especially at night, so everyone listening knows what to expect. Of course, youll use your exterior lights at night.
Even more important, however, is keeping an eye on the other guy-pay close attention to the final approach course before you take the active runway.When landing, keep an eye on the guys in the run-up block. More than one collision has occurred because someone took the active as someone else was landing.
At towered airports, the FAA says that the majority of runway incursions are the result of human error, either the pilot or the controller. Dont let them prove it by becoming a statistic.
-Dr. Paul Foster is an Adjunct Associate Professor with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in aviation safety, management and aircraft maintenance.