Takeoff Briefings for Singles

baron-off-airport

I wonder why takeoff briefings are not typically taught or performed in single-engine airplanes. I think they should be, because they’re as important — if not more so — in a single than the multi-engine airplanes where they’ve long been standard procedure.

Air Safety Institute data show that regardless of category and class, the takeoff and landing phases are where most accidents occur. It’s true of the light GA airplanes you and I are so passionate about, and even more so for the Gulfstream IV I fly at work. In fact, since the G-IV went into service in 1987, there have only been four fatal accidents, but all of them were during takeoff or landing.

While thinking through the particulars of a low-altitude emergency prior to takeoff won’t help in every scenario, it certainly underscores the hazards inherent in flying close to the ground. A thoughtful takeoff briefing is important because emergencies and mechanical failures are as common and dangerous in singles as in twins. Things happen quickly when the engine quits at low altitude. Doesn’t it makes sense that the time to prepare for emergent situations is well before venturing into situations where they might occur?

I fly a wide variety of aircraft, and that provides additional rationale for a takeoff briefing because proper procedures vary from from one airplane (and situation) to another. For example, when flying a Cirrus, the ballistic recovery parachute is an option and a briefing helps reinforce when and where it will be used. On the other hand, if I’m flying a multi-engine recip, I’d probably want to keep flying if an engine quit after lift-off. But even in a typical GA single, there are still lots of decisions to make: where to land, which way to turn, when you can safety make a turnaround, etc. An intelligent pilot will consider the wind direction & velocity, runways in use, traffic conflicts, and more.

So why aren’t single engine pilots exposed to this during training? For one thing, today’s teaching methodology is based on material that’s been in use for half a century. Anyone who’s taken an FAA knowledge test can tell you that. Back then, airspace was simple, open fields were everywhere, and it was assumed you’d just glide down to landing. Today? It ain’t necessarily so.

Consider my neighborhood. At Santa Monica, you practically touch the roof of a gas station before reaching the numbers for runway 21. At Compton, homes are built so close to the field that residents can count the rivets dotting the underbelly of a landing aircraft’s fuselage. Airports like Hawthorne and Fullerton? Good luck. Obstacles in every direction, including some of the most densely populated parts of Southern California.

You might be thinking “Ah, my airport is nothing like that!”. Maybe so, but even if you’re based at a rural field, you probably fly to urban or mountainous airports from time to time. Something else to consider: if I’ve learned one thing from my seventeen years of flying, it’s that real world failures don’t always mimic our training. I’ve had several emergency situations, but not one of them was anything like the standard training scenarios.

The most common simulated emergency is a total engine failure. In reality, powerplant failures are often partial. You’ll lose one cylinder, but the rest still function. The decision making process is more complex in those cases. You have a partial power loss, but it’s entirely possible that amidst the vibration you’ll have enough power to maintain level flight. Do you fly around the pattern? Nurse it up high enough to turn around? Pull the power and land on the remaining runway? You’ve only got one chance to get it right. The pilot most likely to do that is the one who has thought these things through.

Because they’ve been around for half a century, you’d imagine the takeoff briefing would be pretty much set in stone, but even today they undergo frequent modification. Gulfstream recently changed it’s philosophy on this and emphatically states that “there is no such thing as a standard briefing”. I wholeheartedly agree with that approach. Aircraft weight, wind, weather conditions, alternate options, and many other variables are always changing. Note that none of those factors are limited to multi-engine transport-cateogry jets — they are equally applicable to a single engine trainer.

What we’re really talking about here is the role of a pilot. Those who know me can attest to my affinity for high quality stick-and-rudder skills. But anyone can learn to physically maneuver an airplane. The safest pilots are the ones who manage risk effectively. That means having a contingency plan for as many “what-ifs” as possible before shoving the throttle forward for takeoff.

Trust Us — We’re Professionals

ipad-flight-deck

I’ve seen some ill-conceived policies emanate from the FAA over the course of my professional flying career. Some diktats are just busy work, while others fail to achieve an otherwise admirable end. But the worst are those that create the very hazard they are supposed to prevent.

Case in point: the recent adoption of 14 CFR 121.542(d), which prohibits the use of any personal electronic devices in flight. According to the FAA, this rule is “intended to ensure that non-essential activities do not affect flight deck task management or cause a loss of situational awareness during aircraft operation.”

Sounds great on the surface, doesn’t it? I mean, who could possibly oppose a rule which the Feds ostensibly see as the aeronautical equivalent of a ban on texting while driving? Keeping distractions at bay and pilots focused on flying has got to be a wonderful enhancement for safety.

But it’s not. The flight profiles of airlines, cargo haulers, charter companies, fractionals, corporate flight departments, and even private GA operators often dictate long stretches of straight-and-level flight with the autopilot on. Surely the FAA is aware of this. Now add in circadian rhythm issues associated with overnight flights, a dark cockpit with minimal radio traffic, and a flight crew pairing who have run out of things to talk about. There’s nothing to do but stare off into the inky darkness for hour upon hour. It’s a recipe for falling asleep.

Say what you will about distractions on the flight deck, but I’d much rather see a pilot peruse an issue of AOPA Pilot while in cruise than to have that individual zoned out or inadvertently napping. For one thing, the process of waking up takes time, whereas an alert human need only change focus. We already do that dozens of times on every flight anyway. Check in on the engine instruments, then answer a question from a passenger, then look out the window, then consult a chart. We do this all day long.

Is there much difference between reading a magazine and delving into the minutia of some random page of the Jeppesen manual when they’re both a form of busy work to keep the mind engaged during slow periods in cruise? I sincerely doubt a roundtable of experts in automation and human factors would have come up with a PED ban.

I can understand prohibiting them below, say, 10,000′ when the sterile cockpit rule is in effect. That’s a busy time for pilots, and non-essential items are naturally stowed at that point anyway. But electronic devices in and of themselves can be helpful in staving off the ultimate distraction. “Flight to Safety” author and Airbus pilot Karlene Petitt said it best:

Numerous studies have shown that one of the tips to help fall to sleep is to NOT watch television or work on your computer at a minimum of an hour before bedtime. The light suppresses melatonin production and stimulates brain activity. I’m not sure about you, but I want my pilots alert with stimulated brains. Give them something to do to keep them awake.

As many of you have probably noted, this rule is located in Part 121 and therefore only applies to scheduled airlines. From maintenance requirements to medical certification, their regs are the strictest around, so perhaps this seems much ado about nothing for a general aviation audience. But the FAA is of the opinion that this limitation should reach a lot further than United and Delta:

Recommended Actions: This prohibition on personal use of electronic devices on the flight deck in the final rule is applicable only to operations under part 121. However, Directors of Safety and training managers for all operators under parts 135 and 125, as well as part 91K, are encouraged to include operating procedures in their manuals and crewmember training programs prohibiting flightcrew members from using such devices for personal use during aircraft operation.

Will this eventually reach down to Part 91? Who knows. Even if it doesn’t, the real problem is that the FAA is spoon-feeding each and every individual action and prohibition to us without making allowances for the differences inherent in each type of operation. One-size-fits-all is wonderful for tube socks and scarves, but when it comes to flight safety, it’s just bad policy.

The smart way to go about this would be to leave it to the individual company, flight department and/or individual to determine what PED policy best serves the cause of safety. If you’re Southwest Airlines or a charter operator company flying VLJs, you probably aren’t flying long-haul trips and might be fine with reasonable PED limitations. Certainly using them below 10,000′ could be prohibited. But if you’re flying international cargo in a jumbo jet or hopping continents in a Global 5000 on legs of twelve or thirteen hours? That personal electronic device could be incredibly helpful in maintaining alertness.

Whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, pilots are a professional lot who can be trusted to make their own decisions about portable electronic devices.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

A Stab in the Back

After a long night of flying, we were rewarded with this brilliant sunrise as we passed over Manhattan at 3,000 feet.

“Jeez, this is the worst muscle pull ever“, I thought while squirming uncomfortably on the bed in my hotel room. It was eight o’clock in the morning and we had just arrived in New York after flying a red-eye trip from Los Angeles. The transcontinental journey was smooth and quiet, our passengers snoozing in a dark cabin the whole night while we kept watch up front. The sky was just beginning to lighten when we shut down on the Atlantic ramp at Long Island’s historic Republic Airport and wished our sleepy customers a good morning as they trudged down the airstair and into the FBO .

Although it’s been defunct for decades, one can feel the heavy weight of the airport’s legendary namesake hanging in the air like a ghost on those misty early-morning arrivals into FRG. Republic Aviation first appeared on the scene there in the mid-1930’s, and over the next three decades built some of the most famous aircraft in history. The P-47 Thunderbolt, F-105 Thunderchief, A-10 Warthog, and even the pudgy-looking RC-3 Seabee amphibian. Eventually, the post-Vietnam downsizing of the U.S. military claimed the storied Republic factory, but the airport still stands as a testament to What Was.

F-105 Thunderchiefs under construction at the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale, NY.  Though it acquired the unflattering nickname "Thud", the 105 was a capable fighter-bomber which served from 1958 to 1984.

F-105 Thunderchiefs under construction at the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale, NY. Though it acquired the unflattering nickname “Thud”, the 105 was a capable fighter-bomber which served from 1958 to 1984.

We blasting out of Long Island, witnessing a brilliant sunrise during the relatively low-altitude repositioning flight to Teterboro, New Jersey. After hours spent staring into the dark sky, it was a welcome and well-deserved treat to be vectored directly over Manhattan at 3,000 feet while the amber hues of a fresh day splashed nature’s wake-up call across earth and sky.

If there’s one positive aspect of overnight flights, it’s the opportunity to witness a beautiful sunrise. Sunsets are okay too, but when you’re heading westbound they tend to last for hours and remain directly in your face as you race the time zones backwards. No matter how exhilarating, eventually they become too much of a good thing, especially when you’re 45,000 feet up and above much of the protective atmosphere. In fact, if you’re traveling fast enough, the sun will actually come back up while heading west. It must be strange enjoying a complete sunset twice on the same day. As supersonic business jets become a reality, I hope I’ll get to experience that first-hand.

I assume that "big apple" everyone's always talking about must be down there in Central Park somewhere...

I assume that “big apple” everyone’s always talking about must be down there in Central Park somewhere…

A Pain in the… Back

Anyway, I helped offload what felt like a quarter-ton of awkward baggage from the Gulfstream’s aft compartment before retiring to the Marriott. It was shortly after checking in to my room that the lower left area of my back began to ache. “Probably strained it lifting those bags”, I assumed.

Sitting in a seat for five hours and then hopping up to immediately start moving baggage is a good way to hurt yourself, especially in the ergonomically-incorrect confines of the -IV’s cargo area. It’s essentially a walk-in closet-sized space with a flat floor but constantly curving walls and ceiling. You’re literally putting square pegs into a round hole, and loading or unloading things doesn’t always allow for proper lifting posture. “Well, it’s not the first time I’ve tweaked my back, and I’m sure it won’t be the last”, I thought.

I took a couple of ibuprofen, expecting them to relieve the pain. But they seemed to have the opposite effect. If anything the pulsing discomfort of the strained muscles actually got worse, and no matter what position I’d sit, stand, or lie in there was no relief. “I must have really messed myself up somehow…”

It went on like that for a good hour or two before the pain finally subsided. It seemed logical that the discomfort might prevent the strained muscle from relaxing, so I resolved to take it easy for the rest of the day and allow the pulled muscle to heal. A bit of careful stretching and some hot water from the shower seemed to help, and eventually the pain went away. The rest of the trip was uneventful and I considered the issue resolved.

Later that week, my wife and I spent the day at her brother’s house in Topanga Canyon celebrating our niece’s birthday. That evening, we headed downtown to see LA Opera’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It took a while to get used to Previn’s style, and from where we were sitting the orchestra — located on the stage instead of in the pit — overshadowed the singers, but Renée Fleming still gave an an outstanding performance as Blanche. The role was written specifically for her, and it’s easy to see why.

After the performance, we returned to Topanga and as we were staying our goodbyes to the family, that dull aching pain slowly came back. What the heck is going on here, I wondered? Was it from sitting for three hours at the Dorothy Chandler? It was a mystery to me how I could have re-injured myself.

Eureka!

As we drove home, I suffered more and more as the ride progressed. Kristi and I tried to figure out what was going on. Knowing where the pain was located, and she mused out loud about the various body parts located in that region. I was only half-listening when she mentioned something about the kidney — and like a flash it hit me: I must have a kidney stone!

I’d had one about twenty years earlier, before I started flying. I reported it on my very first medical application (and every one thereafter via the “previously reported–no change” schtick). It never prevented me from obtaining any class of medical certification, although the FAA’s aeromedical branch did send a letter asking for a couple of tests back when I first started flying.

As luck would have it, my ‘eureka’ moment occurred on a Friday evening at the start of a three-day weekend. I phoned my doctor’s office and received a return call from a nurse who basically said I’d have to wait until Tuesday to even schedule an appointment. Four days! And who knows when I’d be able to get on the doctor’s calendar.

An urgent care center wasn’t going to be much help, because they wouldn’t have x-ray or CT machines. The only timely option for determining what was going on would be an emergency room visit. At first I demurred. Even with insurance, a short trip to the ER can easily cost a thousand dollars. I’d seen that first-hand. But the following morning the pain was still there, so Kristi dutifully drove me to the Hoag Hospital in Irvine and within 30 minutes had confirmation of my suspicions: a kidney stone.

Kidney stones rarely present pain in the  kidney or bladder.  It's the tiny tube connecting the two that's the problem.

Kidney stones rarely present pain in the kidney or bladder. It’s the tiny tube connecting the two that’s the problem.

That was the bad news. The good news is that it was fairly small and located at the bottom of the ureter, the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder. These little rocks only cause pain when they’re stuck in the ureter; once they pass into the bladder, you’re home free. The doctor estimated that the stone would be gone within a day or two, so he prescribed a pain killer and sent me on my way with a fine strainer to urinate through in order to catch the tiny object when it exited the body. In theory, the stone can be analyzed by a lab in order to determine why it formed.

Sure enough, a couple of days later that damned thing passed, just as the doctor said it would. The chief pilot at my company swears up and down that drinking a Coke helps a stone pass. He said it worked for him. Just to be on the safe side, I did drink one and the stone went the next day. Of course, the ER doctor said it would happen quickly, so who knows.

It was a huge relief, and not just because the pain was gone. As a contract pilot, I am not entitled to any sick pay, paid time off, or other benefits aside from those I purchase on my own dime, and since I obviously wasn’t going to fly with a kidney stone, I was out of work until the situation was resolved.

Honesty is the Best Policy

The FAA allows a pilot to return to the cockpit once the stone is gone, but my episode happened to coincide with the expiration of my first class medical certificate, so I had to start thinking about the hurdles inherent in renewing that important little scrap of paper. It’s just as well because I would have to deal with it sooner or later anyway, and after an hour or two of research I realized that with a bit of forethought and planning, I could get the required tests done and obtain my new first class medical without too much delay.

After a kidney stone episode, the next medical renewal will require a KUB x-ray study to prove you are stone-free, as well as a few simple blood tests and an analysis from a urologist about the possibility of complications or kidney damage. Between the internet, AOPA’s medical specialists, and a good Aviation Medical Examiner, I was able to arrange the required exams and obtain the necessary documentation within a few days.

There’s no doubt that medical certification can be a pain in the rear, even if you’re in perfect health. It’s expensive, time consuming, and there’s plenty of debate about whether it even contributes to flight safety. That’s why there’s a a bill working it’s way through Congress to abolish the 3rd class medical: decades of glider and LSA pilot flying have shown that medical incapacitation is no more likely without medical certification requirements than with it.

This logic can tempt a pilot to omit portions of his or her medical history from their application. Though I’m not a supporter of medical certification for non-commercial aviators, it’s penny wise/pound foolish to do this, especially in an era of computerized databases. It’s easy for omissions to come back and bite you later. The penalties are severe and can include revocation of the pilot certificate itself.

One guy I knew omitted a health issue from his application and the Feds found out about it later by cross-referencing databases from different federal agencies in search of disability fraud. Though he never claimed disability, the omission came to light and caused him a world of headaches. Incidentally, he found the database cross-referencing to be illegal and sued the government. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anyway, a smart aviator will leverage the plethora of available resources to learn the FAA’s requirements and ensure the required data is on hand before going to see the AME. All the tools you need are out there. I know pilots who have had major brain surgery, organ transplants, weird blackout episodes, and more who still managed to get their medical certificates back. Color blind pilots, pilots with no arms, and even those who once took heavy medication for depression have obtained medicals. These days even some diabetics can get a certificate. But you have to know what you’re doing.

Charging into an AME’s office unprepared is asking to have your medical deferred to Oklahoma City, and that lands you in a bureaucratic hell consisting of delays and demands from people you cannot speak to directly and will never meet face-to-face.

The Great Mystery

Even physicians admit that they don’t always know what causes kidney stones. I read that one-quarter of the population will have them at some point in their lives. In my case, I have a theory: I think it has to do with the long-haul charter trips I’m doing these days. Or rather, my behavior on those trips.

I just got back from one where we flew nearly 12 hours (only 10 under Part 135, of course) over an 16+ hour duty day. While I’m well aware that the dry air and high cabin altitude cause dehydration, I never drink anywhere near enough water because I hate having to use the lavatory too often. And when I do drink fluids, on overnight flights it’s often something caffeinated to help keep me alert. Dehydration is a prime culprit for the formation of kidney stones because it allows the minerals being filtered by the kidneys to accumulate in sufficient quantities to crystallize.

Most people don’t drink enough water. I’m trying to be better about it, though. Since the kidney stone passed, a reusable plastic water bottle has been on hand everywhere I go. My brother-in-law had given us a reverse osmosis system for our kitchen, so we finally got that installed. I didn’t realize what a difference it would make in the taste of the water! We used to keep a Brita pitcher on hand, thinking that would remove most of the impurities, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the reverse osmosis process.

Women who have had them say kidney stones are as painful as childbirth. I can’t say with 100% certainty that upping my water intake will keep them at bay forever, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Kidney stones are the pits — literally.

Preventing Stall/Spin Accidents

Phantom arrested landing

I’ve touched on this subject before (see Aviation Myth #14), but for some reason the idea that limiting bank angle will prevent stall/spin accidents keeps rearing it’s ugly head.

It doesn’t. It can’t. It won’t.

Angle-of-bank limitations have been suggested by flight instructors, alphabet groups, pundits, and most recently by Richard Collins of all people. In an Air Facts article last month, he wrote:

The pilot of a Mooney stalled and spun in, apparently while making a steep turn to try to patch up an overshoot of the turn to final. This happens and is easily addressed by never exceeding 30 degrees of bank below 2,000 feet. When the decision is made to “bend” an airplane around at low altitude it is likely to be bent, literally. The moment the pilot decides to try to salvage a bad approach is when risk peaks.

I’m sure Collins is well aware that stalls and spins have no relation to bank angle. You can stall an aircraft in level flight. In fact, that’s how most intentional stalls and spins are performed. The only requirement is that the airfoil be made to exceed the critical angle-of-attack. The same is true with spins: they are not related to aircraft attitude whatsoever. It is only necessary that the aircraft be uncoordinated when the wing is stalled.

An arbitrary bank angle limitation does not make a stall/spin scenario less likely. It does the exact opposite, forcing a pilot to skid the aircraft rather than make a steeper (yet properly coordinated) turn when necessary.

And it will be necessary at some point, due in large part to that very same bank limitation. How’s that for a chicken-and-egg scenario? Lower bank angles mean larger radius turns. The larger the radius, the more skill and precision one must exhibit in order to intercept a specified ground track, as a pilot must do prior to landing. It would be like trying to fly the pattern on autopilot. Oh, you could probably do it, but it would be clumsy, difficult, and you’d be limited to one of those gargantuan, bomber-sized patterns which takes you far from the airport at low altitude — unsafe in its own right — while simultaneously annoying folks both on the ground and in the air.

Many pilots don't know the difference between a slip and a skid and lack an appreciation for the distinction.

Many pilots don’t know the difference between a slip and a skid and lack an appreciation for the distinction.

Some of these bank limits would make landing at certain airports nearly impossible. Kern Valley Airport (L05), with it’s tight downwind adjacent to steep terrain, comes to mind. Collins must know this; he’s been aviating almost since the airplane was invented. That’s what makes his stance so mystifying. When we encounter birds or a traffic conflict in the pattern, are we to stick with, say, a 20 degree bank and accept the collision? What about a moderate over- or undershoot on final? I know, “just go around”. But when bank angles are limited, even that may not be enough.

Two years ago, I recounted the story of what happens when these kinds of limits are placed on a student pilot. It’s something that would have fit right in with Collins’ “Risky Moments” article:

I was at an uncontrolled airport one day watching pilots do their thing, when a student pilot entered the pattern and announced her intention to land on runway 25. On her first attempt her Cherokee blew through the final approach course and she wisely went around. The next time she did the same thing. The third attempt was a larger pattern with an earlier turn to final which resulted in an undershoot. Trying to fix that, she allowed her glidepath to get too high. Another go-around.

By this point the student was pretty rattled and, I’m sure, more that a little embarrassed by her inability to land. You could hear it in her voice as she made various radio calls. After four or five attempts someone had to talk her down via the radio.

What the heck had happened, I wondered? Was there an abnormally high wind aloft just pushing her through the final? Was she turned loose by her instructor with insufficient training? Perhaps there was a mechanical problem with the airplane. Was the traffic on the CTAF too distracting? Maybe she was from a quiet country airport (as if we have any of those in Southern California…).

Further investigation revealed that her CFI had taught her not to exceed some arbitrary bank angle in the pattern. I don’t remember if it was 20 degrees or 30. Maybe it was 15. The exact figure is not important. This poor lady’s instructor had told her that the way to avoid an inadvertent spin in the pattern was to limit her bank angle.

Student pilots often demonstrate a lower (though still adequate) level of performance at cross country airfields than at their home airport due to higher workload. Unfamiliar surroundings, dealing with a CTAF instead of a controller (or vice-versa), different runway numbers and pattern altitudes, etc. That’s when mistakes are more likely to be made.

Saddling the student with a hard limit on bank angle is just asking for a stall/spin situation. That’s my real objection. It’s not simply that angle-of-bank limits don’t work. It’s that they create the very situation proponents claim they’ll prevent.

It would be far easier and safer for pilots to simply learn proper coordination and angle-of-attack awareness. Instead, we try to make due with one crutch after another: angle-of-attack computers, stall warning devices, mechanical rudder limiters, elimination of spin training, curtailing full-stall exposure. And now, of course, bank angle limits. It reaches the point where pilots get so wrapped around the axle about how load factors increase with bank angle that they forget this is only true while maintaining a constant altitude. It’s a rote response, the very lowest level of learning.

Sure, highly specialized flight operations might call for high-tech solutions. If you need to stop a 50,000 pound swept-wing fighter on a pitching carrier deck within 340 feet, flying an exacting angle-of-attack is, if you’ll pardon the pun, critical. By all means, use that AOA gauge. But most of us are putting an aircraft weighing 90% less on a runway that’s 1,500% longer. These programmed, mechanical solutions to basic flying scenarios are not an adequate substitute.

Angle-of-attack awareness and proper coordination are “Flying 101″ tasks which are literally taught in the first few lessons of a student pilot’s career. If anyone holding an airman certificate lacks these rudimentary skills, aren’t they acting as pilot-in-command without really knowing how to fly?

A True Story: Landing at the Wrong Airport

757-landing

I wrote a bit about wrong-airport landings last month after the Dreamlifter made an unscheduled detour to a small civilian airport in Wichita.

They say things happen in threes, so it wasn’t surprising that the faux pas keeps recurring. Next was a Southwest Airlines flight — which really could have ended badly as they put their 737 down on a far shorter runway (3,738 feet) than any I’ve seen a Boeing airliner utilize.

Speaking of landing distance, for most Part 91 pilots, as long as you can stop on the available runway without bending anything, you’re good to go from a legal standpoint. Airlines and charter operators, on the other hand, are required to have a significant safety margin on their landing runways. 14 CFR 121.195(b) dictates that a full stop landing be possible within 60 percent of the effective length of the runway. To put that into perspective, John Wayne Airport’s runway 19R is considered to be one of the shortest used by major airlines on a regular basis. That runway is 5,700 feet long, so landing on a 3,700 foot strip — at night, no less — must have been exciting for all concerned.

The third (and hopefully last one) for a while was a Boeing 787 which narrowly managed to avert landing at the wrong field, but only with the help of an alert air traffic controller.

I related the story of my own Wichita experience in order to explain how easily one airport can be mistaken for another. But I can take it a step further: I once witnessed a very memorable wrong-airport landing.

Intruder Alert

It was 2008, and I was in Arizona for an aerobatic contest being held at the Marana Regional Airport (which also happens to be where all those Starships are awaiting their final fate). Ironically, a number of FAA inspectors had been on-site just 24 hours earlier, ramp checking every pilot and aircraft as they arrived for the competition. Too bad they didn’t show up the next day, because they missed quite a show.

At Marana, the aerobatic box is located two miles southeast of the field, and at the time the incident occurred the contest was in full swing. These events require a large contingent of volunteers to operate, so traditionally competitors will help with contest duties when their category is not flying. I was sitting just outside the aerobatic box, judging a combined group of Advanced power and glider pilots when I overheard someone at the chief judge’s table calling out a traffic threat. Despite waivers, NOTAMs, ATIS broadcasts, and other information about the contest’s presence, it’s not unheard of for a non-participating aircraft to wander through the aerobatic box.

The chief judge had just cleared a new competitor into the box, so he immediately called back and told him to return to the holding area and keep an eye out for the encroaching airplane. I scanned the sky and visually acquired a miniscule speck in the air south of the box. I figured it was a small general aviation aircraft of some sort, but as time passed and the tiny dot grew in size, it became apparent that this was no Bonanza or Skyhawk. We all watched in amazement as a Boeing 757 materialized in all it’s splendor. The landing gear extended and it flew a beautiful descending left turn right through the aerobatic box and dipped below our horizon.

“Well that was weird”, I thought. But hey, this was my first time at Marana. Perhaps there was some sort of charter flight coming in, or the airplane needed to divert for a medical emergency or mechanical problem.

The judging line maintains radio contact with the airport’s traffic frequency as well as the contest volunteers at the airport via a separate set of walkie-talkies, so we heard the sound of silence over the CTAF as this happened. I was later told that the Air Force Academy cadets, who had come out from Colorado Springs to compete in various glider categories, were on the runway getting a TG-10C glider (a military version of the Blanik L-13AC) hooked up to a tow plane when it became clear that the 757 planned on using that same piece of pavement. The cadets scrambled, clearing the runway in record time just as the Boeing touched down smoothly on runway 30, oblivious to everything going on around it.

Thanks to the radios, we were able to follow the action from the judging line even though we couldn’t see the airport from our location. It must have been shortly after they turned off onto a taxiway that the flight crew realized something wasn’t right, because the 757 stopped on the taxiway and just sat there. Marana’s airport manager tried to raise them on the airport’s frequency, 123.0 MHz, but had no luck. For what seemed like an eternity, there’s was nothing to hear but the sound of the Boeing’s two engines idling. Were their radios out, we wondered?

Mystery Solved

Then someone suggested trying 123.05, the frequency for nearby Pinal Airpark. It was at that moment everyone realized exactly what had happened. Wikipedia describes Pinal best:

Its main purpose is to act as a “boneyard” for civilian commercial aircraft. Old airplanes are stored there with the hope that the dry desert climate will mitigate any form of corrosion in case the aircraft is pressed into service in the future. It is the largest commercial aircraft storage and heavy maintenance facility in the world. Even so, many aircraft which are brought there wind up being scrapped.

Pinal and Marana are eight miles apart and share the same 12/30 runway orientation. The 757 was devoid of passengers and cargo; it was being ferried to Pinal for long-term storage after the Mexican airline which operated it declared bankruptcy. Since Pinal has no instrument approach procedures, the pilots had to make a visual approach into the airfield and simply fixated on Marana once they saw it.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Once the airport manager established radio contact with the crew, he didn’t want to let them move since he was concerned about the weight bearing capacity of the taxiways. However, the pilots gave him their current weight and were allowed to proceed. So they taxied back to runway 30 and just took off, presumably landing at Pinal a couple of minutes later.

That was the last I ever heard about that incident, but I’ve often wondered what happened to the pilots. Was the FAA notified? Was there an investigation? Did the airline know? And because they were in the process of liquidation, would it have mattered anyway? I suppose it’s all water under the bridge now.

Analysis

What makes this incident a little different from the others I discussed above is that it took place in broad daylight instead of at night. You’d think the pilots would have noticed the lack of a boneyard at Marana, but if it was their first time going into Pinal, perhaps it wouldn’t have been missed. When multiple airports exist in the same geographic area, they tend to have similar runway orientations because the prevailing winds are more-or-less the same.

As I was writing this, AVweb posted a story about an Associated Press report on this very subject.

Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.

The tally doesn’t include every event. Many aren’t disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren’t publicly available.

The Marana 757 incident is probably one of those which does not appear in the ASRS database. At the very least, it doesn’t appear under the AVQ identifier for Marana Regional Airport. But if the press had found out about it (which they would have in this age of smartphones if there were passengers on board), I’m sure it would have created the same stir we’ve seen with the other incidents.

It might seem that wrong-airport landings are becoming more common, but the statistics show that to be a coincidence. “There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP’s tally. None has resulted in death or injury.”

As a charter pilot, the thing I’m wondering about is whether “commercial aircraft” includes Part 135 flights. Based on the 29,000 figure, I’d assume it does not. Unlike scheduled airlines, charters can and do go to any airport at any time. On larger aircraft, the opspec can literally be global. You’d think this would make a wrong-airport scenario more common, but after years of flying to little corners of the globe, I think this kind of worldwide operation might lower the odds of wrong-airport landing since the destination is frequently unfamiliar and therefore the crew is already on guard.

Theoretically we should always fly that way. Unfortunately, human nature can make it tough to sustain that healthy sense of skepticism when a long day concludes at an accustomed airfield. Perhaps recognizing that fact is half the battle.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2014/02/18/a-true-story-landing-at-the-wrong-airport/.