Is that My Runway? How to Avoid Wrong Surface Operations

by Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing

It can happen to the best of us. After a long taxi at a bustling and somewhat unfamiliar airport, it is not uncommon to find yourself at both a literal and figurative fork in the road before takeoff. “Is that my runway?” you mumble to yourself as you gaze at what appears to be a dizzying display of airfield location, instruction, and direction signs. It doesn’t help that you’re expecting an intersection takeoff and that you’ve got a long line of eager aircraft right behind you. Too embarrassed to click the mic and ask ATC for help, you feverishly scour the airport diagram in your lap, review your taxi instructions, and crosscheck your magnetic compass to get your bearings. You breathe a sigh of relief as you proceed to line up and wait on the correct runway. Crisis averted! Well ... for today at least. I say that because of the rather alarming rate at which these types of situations occur — save for the “crisis averted” part.

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.

“Be sure to listen to ATIS in its entirety,” adds Frakes. “Don’t just get wind and the altimeter setting. You could be missing out on crucial construction notices, runway closures, or runway misalignment warnings.”

Finally, let’s not forget about how Mother Nature can impact a pilot’s ability to navigate around the airport. Glare from the sun and wet pavement, snow cover, and fog can all make a departure and/or landing much more challenging. Always check the weather and try to anticipate any visibility restrictions that could present problems at takeoff and later at your destination. If your arrival at a new destination has you approaching right before sunset on a due west heading, consider rearranging your arrival time so it is easier to pick out the correct runway, or for that matter, the correct airport.

What in Heaven’s Name Brought You to Casablanca?

That leads us to our next area of wrong surface operations, arriving at the wrong airport. Probably one of the most memorable of these situations occurred back in 2013 when a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter headed for McConnell Air Force Base (KIAB) in Wichita, Kan., instead landed at the much smaller Col. James Jabara Airport (KAAO), eight miles away. Contributing to the confusion was the fact that KAAO’s Runway 18/36 is closely aligned to KIAB’s Runway 01/19, a difference that was likely harder to distinguish at night. A further complication was the proximity of a third airport in the vicinity, Beech Factory Airport (KBEC), with another identical runway configuration (01/19). In fact, the crew initially thought KBEC was where they erroneously set down, but coordinates relayed to them, as well as the sound of a small twin-engine turboprop flying overhead, confirmed that they had instead landed at Jabara.

There is also a 6,000-foot difference between runways at KAAO and KIAB, so this just goes to show you how hard it can be to judge the distance of a runway at night. Another red flag in this scenario was the airport’s rotating beacon. Civilian airports use alternating green and white flashes, while two quick white flashes between a green flash denotes a military airport.

To avoid having any off-track arrivals, it’s best to get a good lay of the land ahead of time. Use nearby geographic features or landmarks to your advantage. Is your airport due east of a lake or large factory? Here’s where brushing up on your pilotage skills can come in handy. In addition to reviewing your sectional chart, Google Earth maps can give you an excellent bird’s eye view of what to expect on arrival, including other area airports or features that could appear to be airports (e.g., drag strips, a closed road, a well-lit main street).

Another best practice to confirm you have the right airport (and runway) is to use any and all cockpit instrumentation and navigational aids at your disposal. Even if you’re VFR, dial in an approach and/or use GPS to confirm your position. When you’re cleared for landing, double check that you are using the runway assigned, not just what you expected to be in use. If you are ever in doubt of your approach or landing, perform a go around and promptly notify ATC.

Ain’t You Planning on Going to Bed in the Near Future?

We’ve discussed several of the environmental factors that can lead to a wrong surface operation, but equally important are the many human factors that come in to play. Among those to watch out for are fatigue (did you stay up late watching the playoff game last night?); distraction (did you properly brief your passengers about sterile cockpit rules?); and expectation bias (are you merely hearing/seeing what you want to hear during approach or takeoff?) By following procedures and staying focused, you’ll be able to bring your mental “A” game to every approach and landing.

We’ll Always Have Washington D.C.

Due to the potential for fatal accidents, surface collisions, and runway incursions, the FAA has elevated wrong surface operations to a Top 5 Safety Issue within the agency. Although it has made tremendous strides to reduce the threat of runway incursions and wrong surface operations, the FAA is committed to doing more.

“We have been employing a proactive strategy of improved technology, outreach, and collaboration,” said FAA’s Air Traffic Organization COO Teri Bristol at this year’s Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-in in Lakeland, Fla. “We have made modifications to our systems that will give controllers more awareness of aircraft misalignments, collaborated with our airport colleagues on runway geometry issues, and talked with pilots and controllers about how to effectively communicate runway assignment changes.”

Outreach is another vital component to the agency’s mitigation strategy for wrong surface operations. In addition to the annual Runway Safety Action Team meetings held with aviation stakeholders at each towered airport across the nation, the FAA Safety Team will soon begin promoting a new education campaign focused on stressing the use of technology to improve runway safety. Also be on the lookout for an upcoming FAA Safety Summit, in Washington, DC on August 21, to address wrong surface operations.

... The Fundamental Things Apply

So before you head off to your next destination (Lisbon, anyone?), ask yourself, are you as prepared as you could be for this flight? For starters, I implore you to check out some of the links below for a refresher on surface safety awareness. A little research ahead of time will save you a lot of heartache later and hopefully keep you at the right place at the right time. “... On that you can rely!”

Learn More

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
Created By
FAA Safety Team


Screenshots of “Casablanca” by Warner Bros.

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