Save Story: Boston Controllers Prevent Landing Errors Using New Runway Safety Technology

When two aircraft lined up with the wrong surfaces at airports in the Boston District two nights in a row, FAA air traffic controllers showed keen awareness and responded quickly.

The undercarriage of a plan mid-landing.
The undercarriage of a plan mid-landing.
Photo courtesy of John Croft, FAA Office of Communications.

By C. Troxell, FAA Office of Communications

In the first incident, on April 16 around 9:30 p.m., a C-130 military aircraft lined up with an active roadway parallel to Runway 33 at Bangor International Airport. About 24 hours later, a PC-12 turboprop air taxi cleared for visual approach to Runway 33L at Boston Logan International Airport aligned with Runway 27, which was closed for maintenance.

In both cases, the controllers caught the errors, alerted the pilots to their incorrect alignments, and issued appropriate instructions to reorient the pilots to the correct runways, thus preventing the planes from landing on the wrong surfaces.

Wrong-surface landings are a “Top 5 safety issue” for the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO), according to Dave Dohlman, assistant general manager of the Boston District. “Both incidents demonstrate that despite working under extremely unusual circumstances precipitated by the COVID-19 emergency, the Boston District controllers remain committed to ensuring that air traffic operations are conducted safely.”

It may seem unusual for these similar events to have happened just one day apart, but the reality is that these types of incidents occur with too much frequency, hence the FAA placing an emphasis on mitigating them.

“We see over 50 million takeoffs and landings in the national airspace system every year, and we see wrong-surface arrivals or departures occurring about once a day in the system,” said Bridget Singratanakul, NATCA’s national runway safety representative.

In Bangor, Maine, Chris French and Josh Costello were on duty when the C130 was nearing the end of a long overseas flight. Costello cleared the aircraft for approach into Bangor International and noticed the pilot lining up well east of the airport. Costello quickly alerted French to the issue.

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Bangor Tower controllers Chris French (left) and Josh Costello.

“We have a couple of big roads that are parallel with our runway; at night they can be mistaken for the runway, which has happened before,” French said in an FAA interview. “It’s something we keep our eye on. I asked the pilot to verify he had the field in sight. He thought he did, but it actually was the road. Credit to Josh for catching it.”

French realized that the C-130 had descended to about 1,100 feet and was not going to be able to make it to the airport. He immediately canceled the aircraft’s approach and set it up for radar resequencing to the runway. The aircraft landed safely.

The following night at Boston Logan, the PC-12 air taxi lined up with Runway 27, which was closed for lighting checks and other maintenance. Boston Logan was down to single runway operation; it was all the airport needed with traffic numbers so low.

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Boston Tower controller Steven Spiller.

The plane was about a mile-and-a-half from the airport, cleared to land, when tower controller Steven Spiller noticed the aircraft was lining up with the closed runway. Spiller immediately questioned the pilot.

“He sounded kind of flustered and said he lost sight of the airport,” Spiller said. “That’s when we sent him around and got him set up to come in again. That taxi runs about four times a day. I recognized his voice, so it was a little surprising it was someone familiar.”

After the go-around, the aircraft landed without further incident.

“Logan is a tough nighttime airport because of the city lights,” Boston Tower Air Traffic Manager Mike Nelson said. “And if you’re trying to track them visually, it’s extremely difficult.”

Wrong-surface alignments and landings are a significant risk in the national airspace system (NAS), which is why they have been a Top 5 hazard since 2017. The FAA uses the Top 5 program to prioritize safety-significant issues to the NAS so it can direct resources toward addressing them. Controllers are the top defense against these hazards, and the agency has and is continuing to take steps to address this safety risk.

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ATAP provides controllers a view similar to the image above, which distinguishes approach regions for taxiways from approach regions for airport runways.

One of the key initiatives that helps controllers keep planes on track is the deployment of new surveillance technology at 35 of the nation’s busiest airports.

In February, the ATO implemented Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X (ASDE-X) Taxiway Arrival Prediction (ATAP) at Boston Logan, making it the eighteenth site with ATAP, and 17 more airports are scheduled to get it this year. ATAP is an enhancement to ASDE-X that alerts controllers when an aircraft has incorrectly aligned with a taxiway, rather than a runway, for landing.

In the April 17 event in Boston, Spiller noticed the wrong-surface alignment well before ASDE-X would send an alert, but the system and its ATAP enhancement serve as safety net in such scenarios. A few significant incidents spurred the ATAP software change. First, a Boeing 737 landed on a taxiway at Seattle International Airport in December 2015, and subsequent close calls in Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia highlighted the need for the enhancement.

Since the first site went live in May 2018, ATAP has logged six saves, where the system provided timely alerts and the controllers responded correctly to send the aircraft around.

ATAP also has provided an extra margin of safety in low-visibility conditions, as illustrated by the most recent save event. On Jan. 24, a Cessna 208 approaching Runway 12L at St. Louis Lambert International Airport began to drift left in ½-mile visibility and cloud cover at 200 feet. The aircraft aligned with a taxiway.

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Bangor Tower (BGR) in Maine. Photo courtesy of NATCA.

ASDE-X provided a taxiway alert at approximately 1 mile from the airport, and the controller instructed the aircraft to go around. The aircraft later returned and landed safely

The rollout of ATAP across the country is being coordinated by a national collaborative workgroup that includes subject matter experts from Air Traffic Services, Safety and Technical Training, Technical Operations, and NATCA.

The NAS Engineering group in Tech Ops is continuing to customize the remaining 17 ATAP sites to ensure robust alert performance and reduce nuisance alerts. The group is on track to complete this step by June 30. The collaborative workgroup estimates that all sites will be complete by Dec. 31. Several ASDE-X sites started the process of air traffic training and local safety risk management but were paused due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The ATAP project received the Northwest Mountain Regional Administrator Above and Beyond award in 2018 and was a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in 2019.

Additionally, the Runway Safety Group and runway safety representatives in NATCA conducted nine Special Focus Runway Safety Action Team meetings in 2019 and are on track for the same in 2020. The locations were selected due to recurring issues with wrong-surface events, and the ATO is gleaning lessons learned by talking to pilots and controllers and from pilot deviation reports. The ATO is sharing those lessons with other pilots and airport operators.

“That outreach helps raise awareness to the pilot community, the airport operators and air traffic facilities working with our labor partners to mitigate risk that is at a lot of airports,” Runway Safety Group Manager Gio Dipierro said. “We want people to know how we can help them reduce risk.”

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