Citation Departs Controlled Airport Without a Clearance

Citation CJ2 similar to the aircraft involved in the Icelandic incident. Textron

U.S.-registered aircraft crossing the North Atlantic is hardly new, but smaller jet and turboprop airplanes are making many more crossings than even a decade ago. Because some of these pilots fly primarily in domestic airspace, they might not have experienced some of the intricacies needed to safely operate from countries where English is not the first language.

The Flight Safety Foundation's Aviation Safety Network reported that in January 2018, a U.S. registered Cessna Citation CJ2 – N525FF – departed Reykjavík Domestic Airport's (RKV) runway 19 without a takeoff clearance. As it cleared the runway, the aircraft narrowly missed colliding with a truck that was sanding an intersecting runway due to poor local weather.

As with most accidents, some of the events leading to this incident paint a clear picture of a potential problem. The abbreviated report of this serious incident left many unanswered questions, such as whether the Citation crew was ever made aware of the vehicle operating on the intersecting runway or why the tower controller was heard speaking both English and Icelandic.

While the metar at RKV was not reported, the weather was generally listed as rain showers with a surface temperature near freezing. Reported braking action was poor, hence the decision to sand the runways. When the tower controller informed the Citation crew of the runway condition, they said they were ready to taxi for departure.

The tower controller spoke English to the Citation crew but switched to Icelandic to communicate with the sand truck driver which would have made it difficult for the U.S. crew to understand the building problem. It is unclear whether the tower controller ever mentioned the sanding vehicle to the Citation crew or if the pilots queried the controller about other ground traffic.

About 10:04 local time, the Citation crew was given a taxi clearance to runway 19 with an added note to “hold short of runway 19,” which they acknowledged. A few minutes later the tower controller cleared, "525FF backtrack line up RWY 19," which was correctly read back by the flight crew. Shortly after some radio communications between the tower controller and the vehicle driver in Icelandic concluded, the controller switched back to English and instructed the Citation crew to make a "... right turn, line up RWY 19." About this same time, the sanding truck was turning around on runway 13 and beginning another run. There is no indication of whether the vehicle driver was ever informed of the jet taxiing on runway 19 for takeoff, nor whether the driver was asked to hold short of runway 19.

The tower controller later told investigators from the Icelandic Transportation Safety Board that because he was involved with other communications, he did not notice the Citation crew began their takeoff roll on runway 19 after completing their 180-degree turn. As the sanding truck approached the runway 13/19 intersection, he noticed the jet about ready to rotate on runway 19. With insufficient time to react, the driver found himself crossing the runway 19 centerline as the Citation passed overhead, missing the truck by approximately three feet.

The ITSB later interviewed the Citation crew. The pilot flying N525FF recalled being cleared to taxi and backtrack runway 19. When they turned around to line up on runway 19, the captain recalled the pilot not flying telling the tower they were "ready for departure." For some unknown reason, the PF had already increased thrust significantly and the aircraft reportedly started to slide on the ice. He quickly announced, "we have to go" and commenced the take-off roll. The ITSB analysis of the ATC recordings said the transmission by the PF “ready for departure,” did not take place. It also did not explain why the pilot reported that transmission as coming from the person in the right seat nor why the ITSB reported the remark as coming from the PF, especially since it was not recorded anywhere. There was also no mention of whether anyone on the frequency used or heard a “cleared for takeoff,” instruction.

Despite a long list of confusing communications, the ITSB believes that if all had been made in English, the Citation pilot’s situational awareness of the vehicle working on the intersecting runway might have been increased, not to mention for the truck driver. It also does not note any reason for why the PF decided on his own to ignore the need for a takeoff clearance, a necessary element to the start of any flight at a tower-controlled airport in the U.S.

While there is sufficient responsibility for this extremely close call to spread between the pilots and the air traffic controller, the incident highlights the need for U.S. pilots to always be extra vigilant when operating in countries where English is not the native language. ICAO calls English the universal language of air traffic control, but rules are not always enough to prevent accidents.

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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