Crossing the Yellow Line

The FAA is launching a major pilot education and awareness effort to reduce potentially deadly runway incursions. Harrison Ford is lending a hand.

||| |—|—| | | | Pilots and controllers are doing a pretty good job of keeping airplanes apart on the runway. During the four-year period from 1997 to 2000 there were 266 million takeoff and landing operations at the country’s 459 tower-controlled airports, and only 1,369 of those operations involved a runway incursion. That means pilots or controllers only make a potentially dangerous mistake five times for every one million takeoffs or landings. Not bad.

But three of those mistakes between 1997 and 2000 caused fatal accidents. And the fact remains that the most deadly aircraft accident in aviation history was caused by a runway incursion when two Boeing 747s collided on Tenerife Island in 1977, killing 578. And just last fall an airliner on takeoff roll collided with a CitationJet in Italy, killing all aboard both airplanes.

The safety record for major airlines and corporate jets is so good that few patterns of accidents remain. Nearly every crash is caused by a unique set of circumstances-except for runway incursions. The total number of runway incursions is small, but the rest of the system is so safe that incursions stand out as one of the greatest identifiable hazards in our air transportation system. The FAA is determined to improve that situation, and Congress is even more resolute in keeping the pressure on the FAA and pilots to improve. That’s why the FAA kicked off a wide-ranging runway incursion awareness campaign in January.

By definition, a runway incursion is any error that creates a potential for a collision on a runway. Because the mistake must be made by a controller, pilot, operator of a vehicle or a pedestrian, a runway incursion can only happen at a controlled airport. At uncontrolled airports the “see and avoid” principle applies and, if there is a collision, everybody involved has at least some responsibility. The risk of a collision is even greater at uncontrolled airports than at towered airports, but there is nothing the FAA can do about that, except to remind all pilots that they are responsible to see and avoid each other.

It’s important to understand that a mistake by a controller or pilot-what the FAA calls a deviation-won’t be counted as a runway incursion unless there is the potential for a collision. So if a controller clears you to hold short of a runway, but you taxi onto or across the runway, a runway incursion occurred only if another airplane was on a potential collision course. If there was no other airplane using, or about to use, the runway, there wasn’t an incursion. But the FAA can still take action against a pilot who fails to follow a taxi, or any other, clearance even when no risk of a collision was involved.

||| |—|—| | | | | “Put the brakes on runway incursions.” -Harrison Ford, Pilot| Because the definition of a runway incursion is so broad, it is essentially a useless metric to study safety. If a pilot taxied across a runway without a clearance when another airplane was cleared to land but was still a long way out on final, that was a runway incursion. Nobody wants that to happen, but it isn’t nearly the same as having two airplanes, or a vehicle and an airplane, on the runway at the same time.

To clarify the situation, the FAA developed four levels of runway incursion ranging from Category A, the most serious, to Category D, the least. In a Category D incursion the airplanes, or airplane and vehicle, involved are moving slowly and little, if any action, is needed to avoid a collision. A Category A incursion requires instant and abrupt action to avoid a collision. Category B requires immediate action to avoid impact, and Category C is only a little more threatening than Category D. Obviously, it is Category A and B incursions that get everybody’s attention.

The number of runway incursions has been slowly increasing over the past several years, but the number of Category A and B mistakes has remained stable. There is one Category A incursion in an average month and about five Category B events in that same average month. Since it is Category A and B events that represent the real threat to safety, the runway incursion situation is not getting worse, as the gross number of events may indicate. But the situation is not improving, either.

To try to reduce the number of runway incursions it’s necessary to know who is making the errors. In the four years from 1997 to 2000 it turns out that pilots made more than half of the mistakes, controllers 25 percent of the errors, and the remaining 20 percent of incursions were caused by vehicle operators or pedestrians.

Pilot deviations-as the FAA calls pilot errors-are caused by a pilot not following a correct and specific clearance. Operational errors-mistakes by controllers-occur when a controller issues a clearance that brings airplanes into conflict or causes them to operate too close together, which is called loss of separation. Vehicle driver and pedestrian errors need no explanation, except to wonder why a person would wander out onto an active runway. But it happens all the time.

It would seem logical that runway incursions happen only at times of very low visibility, or at least at night. And that’s true for most of the accidents that have involved airliners. But runway incursions are happening in all kinds of weather and at any time of the day. Daylight and good visibility give everybody involved a second chance to see and avoid after the mistake is made, but there isn’t always enough time to recover, no matter how nice the weather.

General aviation pilots account for 52 percent of the operations at the tower-controlled airports, a surprisingly large number. However, several of the busiest airports in the country-such as Van Nuys-are almost exclusively used by general aviation. And remember, the FAA defines general aviation as any flight that isn’t an airline or major freight operation. A Gulfstream V is a GA airplane and so is a Cherokee.

It turns out that GA pilots are doing worse than the airline guys. GA pilot mistakes account for 58 percent of all runway incursions. Most of the incursions are caused by pilot confusion or inattention, but the people from the FAA Runway Safety Office told me that many times a year a GA pilot will take off or land at a tower-controlled airport without talking to anybody. That kind of behavior should embarrass all GA pilots.

It’s hard to know how to help pilots who are so out of it that they depart controlled airports without ever talking to ground and tower controllers, but for the rest of us education and improved airport markings offer the most hope for improvement.

The FAA has completed the first major step in improving airport markings by standardizing taxiway and runway signs at all controlled airports and many less busy fields. The signs are not as intuitive as we may like, but at least they are all the same from airport to airport. Once you understand the purpose and meaning of a sign, you can use that information at every airport.

Of equal importance are the surface markings that guide pilots on runways and taxiways and act as visual barriers to hold short. The FAA has doubled the size of many of the critical surface markings, such as runway hold short lines. It has also painted black backgrounds on the pavement to make the yellow lines stand out more clearly. And it has installed flashing “guard lights,” either elevated or flush with the surface, at some intersections to remind pilots that they are approaching a hold short line.

The FAA is so serious about improving the runway incursion problem that it is experimenting with all manner of devices, including traffic type lights, lasers that could form a visible barrier, different colored surface markings and modifications to controller procedures.

The ultimate goal is to create an airport marking system that is so intuitive that you could drop a blindfolded pilot anywhere on the airport, yank off the blindfold and, in less than three seconds, the pilot would know exactly where he was on the airport. That is a tall order, particularly in low-visibility conditions.

Let’s say that you get dropped on a runway. Easy, right? Runways have white centerlines and taxiways don’t. Not necessarily, because a runway has yellow lead on and lead off lines, may have hold short bars, and how would you know which runway you are on if you couldn’t see the numbers at either end? Quick, which side of the runway hold bars are you on if the dashed part of the bars are closest to you? You are on the runway side. The bars make sense when you taxi up to them, but it isn’t intuitive.

Pilots need to know the airport surface markings and signs cold, and the FAA has published guides to put in your chart book, sticky back guides that you can paste in your vehicle or cockpit and CD and videotapes to explain the system.

To reinforce the need to know the airport marking system, the FAA has begun inserting more questions on the topic in pilot certificate knowledge tests. New emphasis will also be inserted in the practical test standards so that you will be quizzed on signs and markings by the examiner whenever you take a check ride. Study of signs and markings will also be required during the annual recurrent training for pilots who fly airliners and for jet pilots when they are rechecked to keep their type ratings current. In other words, any time the FAA or one of its designated instructors or examiners gets a crack at a pilot, airport signs and markings will be part of the training and testing.

The problem of runway incursions will also be emphasized at FAA-sponsored safety seminars. Pilots who attend their local seminar will have a chance to review signs, markings and procedures without the threat of failing a test or check ride.

Another program in the effort to prevent runway incursions is simply to call attention to the problem at every opportunity. Movie actor Harrison Ford has offered his fame to the FAA by appearing on posters and in video and CD releases on the issue. The FAA has produced a poster, featuring Ford, that will be posted at FBOs. The poster will remind pilots as they head for the ramp to be alert for runway incursions. To help pilots find their way around, the poster has a pocket that contains the airport diagram if they don’t already have one. Ford is a very active fixed-wing and helicopter pilot who is serious about his flying. He comes across as a likeable fellow who, by his own admission, is an airplane nut who has been very lucky in life. He most certainly is not the arrogant know-it-all type one might expect from somebody of his celebrity.

On the controller side of the incursion problem the FAA is examining phraseology and procedural changes that may make instructions more understandable. No immediate changes in procedures are expected, but many are being tested in airport simulations. Another issue for controllers is simply forgetting that two airplanes were cleared into conflict. The FAA is working on a number of devices and software programs that could act as memory aids for controllers.

There may be new technologies created that can prevent runway incursions in the future. Everything is being at least considered, even a physical barrier that would rise to block entrance to a runway when it is being used by another airplane. But a hardware fix for incursions is far in the future, if any such solution is possible.

In the meantime, our only hope is to know the signs and markings, have an accurate airport diagram in the cockpit and pay the utmost attention to all clearances by the tower and ground controllers. General aviation pilots are already under intense scrutiny because of events beyond our control. Preventing runway incursions is something we can and we must do to continue to enjoy access to the nation’s airport system.


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