By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Managing Editor
Learning to drive in New York City was definitely not without its challenges. I recall the frantically busy streets of Flushing, Queens as the proving grounds for getting my license. If you can drive a car here, you can drive it anywhere, right? So I thought.
During driving school I was confident I was being exposed to every roadway hazard imaginable: detours, construction zones, emergency vehicles, jaywalkers, and piano-sized pot holes. You name it; we drove through, over, or around it! Safely, I might add.
Despite my perceived prowess behind the wheel, I was in for a rude awakening one December morning when I offered to drive a few friends into Manhattan. At a rather large intersection, I made what I thought was a routine left turn onto a two-way street. It was instead a six-lane one-way street with what looked like a sea of yellow cabs careening towards me. You can imagine my panicked reaction. Luckily, I was able to shuffle in to a vacant parking spot to avoid the swarm of oncoming vehicles before sheepishly making a 180-degree turn.
So what happened? How could I make such a big mistake? “Did you not see the one-way sign?” shouted the peanut gallery from the back seat. Truth is it was pretty hard to notice among the throng of parking and bus stop signs, not to mention all of the double-parked delivery vans. Excuses aside, I should have been more careful. It just goes to show that expecting something to always be a “certain way” can end up being your downfall. Thankfully it was a taxi cab and not a Cessna Citation screaming towards me.
Unfortunately, that same type of mistake at an airport is more common than you might think. Sometimes obscured visibility, inoperative or unfamiliar airport signage/lighting, or confusing intersections, can cause you to mistake a taxiway for a runway (or vice versa), and lead to a dangerous incursion.
The problem isn’t just on takeoff either. Consider Delta Air Lines Flight 60 in October 2009. The Boeing 767, on a pre-dawn arrival from Rio de Janeiro, landed on Taxiway Mike at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. No damage or injuries were reported, but you can only imagine the catastrophe that would have ensued had the taxiway been occupied. Contributing factors to this incident included unavailable runway approach lighting and a confusing mix of lighting technologies on the taxiway.
This type of mistaken identity can lead to runway confusion, aka, wrong surface events (WSE). To help reduce the occurrence of such events, the FAA continues to make use of two very effective tools: the Runway Safety Simulator and the From the Flight Deck video series. The former offers users a combination of animations and interactive scenarios depicting different challenges a pilot may face while taxiing. Three of the animations focus specifically on WSEs.
The FAA’s From the Flight Deck video series provides pilots with actual runway approach and airport taxiway footage captured with cockpit mounted cameras, combined with diagrams and visual graphics to clearly identify hazards and hot spots. There are currently more than 25 different airport videos with more on the way. The series also contains videos that cover specific risk areas like wrong direction intersection takeoffs and hold short awareness.
It might seem obvious to some pilots, but focusing on your surroundings and understanding what can blur the distinction between a runway and taxiway can really go a long way in making sure you head out the right “way” each time.
Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of the FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.