Over the past several years the FAA has highlighted a few safety concerns designed to stop the most serious mishaps, but the agency has pursued none of these efforts as energetically as it has worked toward putting an end to runway accidents, a focus we applaud.
It’s an effort that, unfortunately, has shown spotty results, in part because, as it turns out, the matter of exactly what airplanes do when they’re close to the ground and how they interact with each other from coming to harm near the ground is much more complex than most pilots ever would have imagined.
Consequently, the efforts directed toward putting an end to these deadly mishaps have by necessity been many-faceted, ranging from pilot education programs to maintenance regulation. There is almost no part of the safety spectrum that is not involved in some way in the runway safety picture.
Even as difficult as it is to make a difference, the reason for the FAA’s continuing commitment to runway safety is clear: Accidents on or near the ground are bad news.
As most pilots know, the most deadly accident in the history of aviation was caused by a runway incursion. It was the collision on a fog-shrouded runway between two heavily loaded 747s, one operated by KLM and the other by Pan Am, on the ground at Tenerife in March 1977, killing a total of 583 people in the two airplanes. After a bombing closed the airport at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, the two airplanes’ original destination, the smaller Tenerife airport, Los Rodeos, was overrun by the diverted airliners; a lack of ramp space required them to be parked on the parallel taxiway, forcing other airplanes to back-taxi for takeoff.
By the time the airport at Las Palmas was reopened, fog had moved in at Tenerife, and all the pieces were in place for the deadly collision between the KLM flight taking off and the Pan Am 747, which, while back-taxiing up the same single runway as the KLM aircraft was now departing from, spotted the jetliner as it approached but too late to be able to fully clear the runway before the KLM giant smashed into it at 140 knots. It was an unimaginably horrible scene.
Without going into great detail — there have been books written about the disaster — there were so many causal factors with the Tenerife crash (the fog, the closed taxiway, the delay, the poor communication among the controllers and the pilots, and the lack of appropriate procedures to address such an unusual set of circumstances) that disaster seemed inevitable. The tragic collision prompted changes in communications and taxi procedures, among others, but, as is always the case with such corrective actions, such remedies were all too late for the victims of that crash.
The fact is that runway accidents, because they often involve collisions with other airplanes at very high speeds or high-speed diversions, exact a terri-
ble toll, as we saw most dramatically at Tenerife.
In the world of air transport, fatal accidents are rare in general, but a high percentage of those that still occur are runway accidents. In recent memory there have been a number of high-profile, multiple-fatality accidents:
• The Air France Concorde crash, in July 2000, which happened shortly after the supersonic airliner hit debris on the runway while on its takeoff roll, then caught fire and crashed shortly thereafter, killing 113.
• The October 2001 collision in Milan, Italy, between a Cessna CJ2 and an MD-87 after the Cessna mistakenly taxied onto the runway where the passenger jet was taking off. A total of 118 people died in the disaster.
• The crash of a Comair Canadair regional jet at Lexington, Kentucky, in August 2006 after the crew mistakenly tried to take off on a too-short runway, mistaking it for the longer, active runway from which they were supposed to depart. Fifty people perished in the crash.
• The takeoff accident involving a Learjet 60 in Columbia, South Carolina, in September 2008, which killed four after multiple tire blowouts at high speed on the takeoff roll.
Sadly, the list could go on, but just from these few tragedies, the point is clear: Accidents on or near the ground kill, and they take many forms. Maddeningly, they also are exceedingly difficult to prevent.