Always double check your heading before takeoff to ensure you’re on the correct runway.
In fiscal year 2016, there were 331 wrong surface departures and a nearly identical 330 wrong surface events during the approach and landing phase in the United States. That’s almost two wrong surface operations per day, and it’s not just at the larger commercial airports. “The risks we are seeing are systemic from small airports to large airports,” says Tom Frakes, the FAA’s Central Region Runway Safety Program Manager. “We’re also seeing that wrong surface operations can happen to pilots of all skill levels. Even pilots with years of experience are not exempt from making these basic mistakes.”
Cases of mistaken identity at airports have garnered a few unflattering headlines in recent years, but the gravity of the issue became most apparent in July 2017 when an Airbus 320 lined up and nearly landed on a loaded taxiway at San Francisco International Airport. The A320 dipped as low as 59 feet above the surface before executing a go-around and narrowly avoiding four passenger- and fuel-filled airliners. The event was a sobering reminder of the need for increased vigilance among pilots, as well as a need for the FAA to enhance awareness of this potentially deadly issue.
While the mishap at San Francisco involved a commercial air carrier during night operations, a closer look at both wrong surface takeoff and landing scenarios reveals that more than 80-percent were attributed to general aviation operations during daylight hours. The data also shows that 95-percent of wrong surface landings occurred when the visibility was three miles or greater. So what’s the driving force behind these cases of mistaken identity? In the spirit of this issue’s Casablanca theme, “let’s round up the usual suspects.” Along the way, we’ll also have a look at what you can do, and what the FAA is currently doing to combat this issue.
There Are Certain Sections I Wouldn’t Advise You to Invade!
The FAA defines a wrong surface operation as an event where an aircraft lands or departs on the wrong runway or on a taxiway, or lands at the wrong airport. The danger of such an action is obvious — the surface you mistakenly use could be closed, under repair, or damaged, or it may not be long enough to use for a safe takeoff or landing. You also run the risk of colliding with other aircraft or vehicles approved to operate on that surface, be it a runway or taxiway.
The good news is that there are several red flags, which, if identified in time, can help prevent you from being on the wrong surface at the wrong time. Causal factors for wrong surface operations typically fall into two main categories: the environment, and the pilot.
Of All the Runways, in All the Airports in All the World ...
Our opening scenario is a good example of how an airport’s environment can contribute to a pilot becoming disoriented or sometimes completely lost. Everything from an airport’s size, to runway layout, to activity levels, can contribute (sometimes in concert) to leading a pilot astray. Parallel runways seem to be among the most common triggers for mistaken identity. Often a shorter and narrower parallel runway can get overlooked by a pilot approaching an airport and be mistaken as a taxiway. A different colored surface on each of the runways can also add to the confusion.
Parallel runways can also be staggered laterally and horizontally, sometimes by several thousand feet. A pilot cleared to land on a 3,500-foot Runway 36R may not notice it is much further apart and set back than its 36L sibling — with the latter’s clearly marked threshold, touchdown zones, and 8,000 feet of roomy space luring you to land. On the flip side, sometimes an adjacent taxiway can have the same effect, especially when offset parallel runways are in place. What you might think is 36R is actually a taxiway for 36L. The real 36R could be offset further back and harder to discern. The blue taxi lights on “36R” should give away the fact that it’s not a runway, but that’s not always a given with someone who’s already mentally committed to land.
When parallel runways are in place, an adjacent taxiway might be confused for a runway.
The moral of the story: if your runway has a letter in it, shore up your situational awareness and know what to expect when it comes to runway size, shape, and proximity. That means you need to study your airport diagrams, including those for alternates, very thoroughly before flight. You may also find it helpful to pull up a satellite picture online to get a more realistic view of what you should see.
The same vigilance for knowing your surroundings is required for departures. Complex airport geometry can be the downfall of many well-intentioned pilots, especially in a high-paced, busy environment. Pilots used to a single runway, non-towered environment can be in for a rude awakening at a larger airfield, with multiple taxiway and runway intersections. The FAA has labeled many of these complex intersections as “hot spots” on airport diagrams in order to heighten awareness and encourage pilots and vehicle operators to exercise caution in these areas. For a list of hot spot descriptions around the nation, go to bit.ly/2JP6SeT. You can also find airport diagrams, notes, and updates in the U.S. Chart Supplement (bit.ly/2jo7uwK).
Airport construction can require unexpected detours to customary taxi routes, as well as throw a wrench in your arrival plans. For the crew of the aforementioned A320 in San Francisco, construction played a major part in the crew’s decision to line up on what they thought was the correct runway. The flight was cleared to land on Runway 28R, but the adjacent 28L was closed for construction that evening with its lights turned off. They overlooked the construction closure and assumed the parallel taxiway off 28R was indeed their runway. To be sure, always check NOTAMs for construction notices ahead of time. You can see an updated list here: bit.ly/2wVHy5k.