A runway incursion is any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and takeoff of an aircraft.
The frequency of runway incursions is becoming a worldwide concern and many countries are developing safety programs to try to reduce the frequency. It is not just private pilots who make this type of error. Forty-three percent of the runway incursions in the United States involve commercial aircraft.
The following runway incursions have occurred at controlled airports in just the last two months and the busy season is still ahead.
A Cessna 172S was given and read back instructions to hold short of runway 07. The aircraft then crossed runway 07 with one aircraft on final.
A Diamond DA 20 C1 landed on Runway 24 and was instructed to exit on Delta taxiway and contact the ground controller. The aircraft crossed Runway 29 without clearance. At the time of the occurrence Runway 29 was released to ground control to accommodate snow removal.
A Cessna 182S aircraft was preparing to depart on a local VFR flight. The Cessna 182S pilot called ready for departure off of runway 26 at taxiway ALPHA. The pilot was instructed to hold short of runway 26. The pilot read back the clearance but the aircraft was then observed moving into position on the runway. The tower controller instructed the pilot to stop the aircraft. The pilot of a Cessna 152 aircraft on final approach to runway 26 was instructed to conduct an overshoot.
A de Havilland DHC 8 departing off Runway 26 from taxiway C was cleared for takeoff with a left hand turn. The Tower Controller then noticed another de Havilland DHC 8 had crossed the hold short line at Taxiway B onto Runway 26. The Tower Controller questioned the crew of the second Dash 8 to determine if they thought the clearance was theirs. One of the pilots replied that he was sure that it was.
The crew of a Jetstream 31 committed a runway incursion on Runway 06R. The pilot followed the instruction to cross Runway 06R that the controller had given to vehicle Service 522.
The ground controller issued a taxi clearance to the pilot of a DHC 6 300 Twin Otter to taxi on taxiways Papa and Alpha and to hold short Runway 34. The pilot acknowledged the instructions with the hold short restriction. The pilot switched to the tower frequency and the aircraft entered the runway without tower clearance. The tower controller saw the aircraft taxiing onto Runway 34 and issued takeoff clearance.
The reasons for runway incursions generally fall into the following categories: confusion, distraction, fatigue and being unfamiliar with the airport.
The DA 20 pilot probably does not fit into any of these categories. He or she may not have understood that a clearance is required to cross any runway, active or not.
Misunderstood communications were definitely the causes for the errors made by the Dash 8 and Jetstream 31 pilots. Commercial airline pilots have a very heavy workload during taxi for take-off. Rapid clearances, poor radio reception or a slight distraction is all it takes to mistake another’s clearance for your own.
Communication misunderstandings occur more frequently at airports where the controllers are very busy and are speaking at a rapid rate. Pilots may not be certain who is being talked to at a given moment. If in doubt, ask.
Distraction is likely the most common cause for a runway incursion and is the likely culprit in most of the cases listed above. We often hear what we expect to hear, especially when distracted. Some of the pilots expected to hear a clearance for take-off.
It is not possible to tell from the incidents listed above if fatigue was a factor in any of them, but fatigue does reduce our ability to concentrate and makes us less alert or more susceptible to being distracted.
We have been talking about controlled airports. Runway incursions also occur at uncontrolled airports. If we are not paying adequate attention to the traffic in the air around the airport, we may taxi onto a runway when an aircraft is on final. Or we may have to commit an overshoot suddenly if an aircraft or vehicle enters the runway while we are on final for landing.
It appears that deer, foxes, coyotes, rabbits and birds are increasingly enjoying the comforts of airports and are not paying adequate attention to the rules regarding airport use. It is up to us to avoid them.
We can reduce the possibility of making runway incursion errors ourselves if we spend a little time studying the layouts of any unfamiliar airports we are intending to use. We should use caution before entering or crossing any runway, active or not. We should read back any instruction to “line up and wait” or to “hold short.” We must listen to all radio traffic to maintain an awareness of what other aircraft and vehicle traffic are doing. We should question anything that seems out of place. We must maintain a lookout for other traffic. They may not be where they say they are or they misunderstand our intentions or a controller’s instructions. We must force ourselves to be alert whenever we approach any runway.
Be alert, be defensive, be safe.
Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.