Runway Safety Madness – Tongue n’ Cheek

Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt. That’s my new strategy for preventing runway incursions. 

It’s a reasonable plan, given that these events have actually increased since the FAA began seriously collecting statistics on the issue. That’s right. Despite the implementation of new rules and airport signage, incursions continue to increase year after year (about a 25% increase since 2013). If I were superstitious I might suggest we stop doing things to reduce runway incursions so that their numbers will decrease to some previous level. Unfortunately the “Don’t look at it and it will go away” trick probably won’t work here.

These days, the unauthorized presence of an airplane (or part of it) on a runway is sure to get the controller’s attention, and not in a good way, either. For instance, if even an inch of your spinner crosses the runway hold lines without a clearance, that’s a runway incursion…no matter how you spin it. Recently, a friend was holding short of a runway (close to the hold bars) when the tower instructed him to execute a 180-degree turn and taxi to another intersection. My friend said that he’d happily comply but only if his left wing could get a clearance onto then off the runway during the pivoting turn. The controller obliged by clearing his left wing onto, then off the runway. Was he being a smarty pants? If he was, at least he’s a violation-free smarty pants.

Plain and simple, you don’t want to be listed on the FAA’s bad-boy detention list of runway violators. This could get you on the “NO-FLY” list, and I don’t mean the one the TSA maintains. While there are many reasons for runway incursions, there are also some plausible (but by no means, exculpatory) explanations for this behavior.

During the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, several small businesses prevented unauthorized parking in their lots by posting signs that read: Don’t even think about parking here! That was a unique sign and it got my attention in much the same way a traffic sign showing the word “STOP” gets my attention. Yet, airport signs are not always attention getters. Instead of simple words on a sign that spell out information, we often have symbols/signs near the ground (or on it) where they are hard to see. Furthermore, these symbols/signs often require one or more levels of “interpretation” before their intended meaning is revealed. If you’ve ever looked at a yellow-on-black taxiway sign and had to silently verbalize John and Martha King’s mnemonic, “Black square, you’re there,” you understand this process.

Ultimately, each sign or symbol has its own meaning on airport property, while the same sign or symbol can have an entirely different meaning on a public road. For example, the FAA uses two sets of double yellow lines, solid on one side (stop and obtain a clearance before crossing) and dashed (don’t ask, don’t tell) on the other. Is it any wonder that pilots often misinterpret the meaning of these lines under certain conditions, especially when they’re stressed?

Solid double-yellow lines mean “no go” in FAA speak. On my drive to the airport, however, I often cross two solid double-yellow lines without a clearance from anyone and without breaking the law. In fact, I have thousands of times more experience crossing solid double-yellow lines in my car without permission than I have stopping at them in my airplane while waiting for a clearance. Additionally, even when you cross the broken double-yellow lines first, you always cross the double "solid" yellow lines painted next them. This “double cross” can double cross you. It’s why some pilots must stop and intentionally interpret the “yellow lines” symbology before continuing their movement on the airport. In other words, pilots might see the runway’s hold bars and say to themselves, “Broken lines, broken brakes [you’re moving]; solid lines, solid brakes [you’re not moving].” Pilots have to do this because the meaning of these lines isn’t intuitive. It’s also contradicts what they learned in driving school.

Think about it this way. Early Chinese ideograms (stick pictures) were once easily interpreted because the picture “was” the concept being represented. For instance, a stick figure drawing of a small hut containing stick figures of a squirrel, a bird, and a cricket is easy to interpret. It means someone left the windows open. As ideograms evolved over time, they lost their direct reference to the physical world. Most ideograms are now stick figures that don’t look like anything recognizable. This makes ordering “takeout” much more difficult.

In a similar way, the runway’s double-yellow hold lines don’t convey any picture-type meaning at all, nor do they speak to us phonetically. They require an intermediate step of interpretation to say nothing of spatial reasoning (i.e., it’s the direction at which these lines are approached that determine their meaning). Now, I’m not saying that pilots, when queried, might not know the academic meaning of the runway hold lines. Most likely, they do. I’m saying that these lines are no guarantee that they will produce the behavior the FAA desires in pilots, especially when those same pilots are stressed or distracted.

Perhaps we’d be better off if the FAA placed easy-to-interpret ideograms at all runway intersections. These graphics might show a small airplane hopping over double-yellow dashed lines. Now a “hopping stick figure” is easy to interpret. The graphic might also show an airplane approaching double-solid lines where the symbol of a hand signals you to “stop,” and next to the hand are three wavy lines resting above a fire pit. This ideogram communicates the idea to, stop here or you’ll be in hot water, or, stop here unless you want an FAA inspector to give you a hot bath. Well, you get the point, right? Airport signs aren’t necessarily easy to interpret.

If you think the idea of ideograms or picture-grams is silly, then ask yourself why a major fast food restaurant glued tiny pictures of their food offerings to individual pre-programmed cash register buttons. Order a double cheeseburger and the cashier pokes the picture of a double cheeseburger with his finger. You don’t need a Cray-Supercomputer-like brain to succeed at this job. You just need fingers…and only one, at that (and, you can still claim that you work in digital processing). Perhaps this explains why I once ordered fast food, then looked at the cashier and said, “Have a nice day.” He replied, “Sorry, I can’t seem to find that button.” Perhaps I just imagined this.

More than likely the FAA won’t buy into my ideas about stick-figure airport symbology. But what about some reasonable signage with which pilots are already familiar? What about an octagonal, white-on-red STOP signs at all runway intersections. A small, vertical, octagonal “red and white” STOP sign on each side of a taxiway that intersects a runway should reduce runway incursions. Think about it. Pilots have spent the entirety of their adult lives being conditioned to stop at STOP signs.  Why waste that training?

We certainly capitalize on a pilot’s previous experience with automobiles when it comes to interpreting the tower’s light-gun signals, don’t we? Unless you’ve just escaped from prison, a steady red light observed in your car’s rear view mirror means “stop.” When ATC shoots a steady red light to you during taxi, it also means “stop” taxiing. A steady red light seen from the air also means stop (unless you’re breaking into a prison). And the only way you can stop an airplane’s movement in flight is to circle and give way to other aircraft. The same theme applies to the other light-gun signals, too.

If you are worried about the height of these signs, consider that they don’t have to be very tall at all. If you are concerned that a low-wing airplane might clip one with its wing, then make the sign’s supporting post out a Legos-like materials. While you’re at it, you might as well make the entire sign edible, too. The FAA’s new motto can be: Clip a STOP sign, stop for lunch. At least you’ll stop before crossing a runway. I’m being silly, but you do get the point, correct?

As silly as this idea seems, it does become more practical given the change in FAR 91.129(i) the FAA made in 2012. The regulation was changed to state that pilots need a clearance to cross any runway intersecting an airplane’s designated taxi path. After this rewrite, pilots were no longer allowed to cross multiple runways with a single “Optimus Prime” clearance. If multiple runways are to be crossed along any taxi path, the controller must issue a clearance to cross each runway individually and can’t issue multiple runway crossing clearances (with one exception that’s not relevant here). Pilots must cross one runway before receiving the next crossing clearance. I’d like to say that this change reduced runway incursions, reduced pilot workload and reduced runway violations. I’d like to, but I can’t. Remember, the number of runway incursions since 2012 has actually increased, not decreased. I’m not saying that this is an indication of a failed FAA policy, but shouldn’t major changes in the FARs that directly deal with runway incursions actually reduce runway incursions?

Furthermore, this change in regulation can turn normal taxi scenarios into “gotcha” scenarios. At a recent aviation safety seminar, an instructor offered examples of taxi clearances that, he said, could easily trip up even the most experienced of pilots. It seems to me that the important message in his example is this: If experienced pilots are easily fooled by a taxi clearance, then the problem lies with the system more than it does with the pilot.

Personally, I’ve never cared for an author who points out problems and fails to offer solutions. So here are two solutions to the runway incursion problem.

First, stop sign or no stop sign, you should always think, “STOP” when approaching any runway. Period! Then you should stop before crossing that runway. Yes, stop even if you have a clearance to cross the runway. Then, just before crossing it, think about what you are doing a second time. I’ve never heard of a pilot being violated for stopping on a taxiway at a runway intersection to look both ways before crossing that runway. I don't think you'll be the first, either. And the tower controller is not going to crawl down out of the tower cab, run over to your airplane and scold you. On the other hand, if you see the controller shimmy down the ladder, then lock your airplane's doors and shut the windows, just in case (you can always yell, "stranger danger," too). Remember, if you're not sure that you are cleared to cross that runway, ask the controller for clarification! Have him repeat the clearance again. You can't get hurt by doing this. After all, you've got the doors locked.  

You might ask, “But what if the controller yells at me for stopping?” My response is, “So what if he does?” Besides, why do you think a controller might yell at you in the first place? Are you worried he’s upset because you are questioning him about crossing a runway that’s under his control? OK, so what if he’s upset? What’s he going to do to you? Do you think he’s going to embarrass you by asking your name over the air? So what if he does? There’s no regulation that says you have to give him your name, much less your real name, over the air. So tell him you’re Chuck Yeager, but make sure you throw in the word, “pard,” ten or twenty times otherwise he won’t believe you. The fact is that if you elect to be cautious and “stop to see for yourself” whether or not the runway is in use, that’s your business…pard.  

Isn’t it interesting how the FAA is concerned about runway incursions on one hand, while on the other, it promotes procedures that actually make runway incursions more likely? I’m speaking, of course, of Land and Hold Short Operations (LAHSO). This is where you allow two airplanes to simultaneously use two separate runways that intersect each other...sort of like a game of Chicken. Since there are not enough runways for everyone to use at the same time, the FAA came up with the idea of sharing them. Does anyone believe that this makes runway incursions less likely? Nevertheless, the FAA promotes LAHSO operations to get more airplanes into the air and onto the ground. I applaud the intent but not the result. Personally, it just seems much wiser to reject a LAHSO request unless you are intimately familiar with the runway environment at that field.

Finally, what if I told you that I knew where the locations of quicksand pits were around a heavily traveled jungle path? Then I told you that experienced observers standing on elevated platforms were constantly watching those quicksand pits and the people walking near them. Wouldn’t you expect that any individual walking too close to a quicksand pit would be warned to avoid it? Common sense says this would happen. So why is it that air traffic controllers know the precise locations on an airport where pilots are likely to be confused by runway signs, geometry or symbology, but are not "officially" required to help them navigate these areas?

The locations (quicksand pits) of which I speak are known as Hot Spots. These are the areas that the FAA has empirically defined as having an increased likelihood of a runway incursion. Why? Because the areas are often complex in terms or runway geometry and/or signage. These Hot Spots are clearly marked on airport diagrams (see figures of Taxiway “Hotel” Hot Spots below). 

Yet, a pilot might taxi into a Hot Spot area and receive no warning from ATC regarding the potential for confusion (of course, there are always good controllers who go above and beyond the call of duty by providing unsolicited assistance in navigating these areas). Of course, pilots should be aware of all the Hot Spots on an airport. Ultimately the pilot is responsible here, but isn’t the overarching theme here to prevent runway incursions? Wouldn’t it seem reasonable that ATC (when workload permits) participates in helping pilots navigate Hot Spot areas when the situation demands? I’ve certainly participated in helping controllers when they became confused about airport traffic (quite a few times, too). So why not help each other when the situation demands it? (Once again, to be clear, the pilot is ultimately responsible here. Make no mistake about this.)

So here’s my recommendation for you. Know where the Hot Spots are on an airport, such as Taxiway Hotel at John Wayne airport. You'll find these Hot Spots listed on the airport diagram in the Chart Supplement. This area is notorious for confusing pilots, often resulting in a runway violation. If you are approaching a Hot Spot and are the least bit unsure of what to do, then ask the controller for progressive (start and stop) instructions to help you navigate this area. If the controller can’t do this (because he doesn’t believe you are Chuck Yeager), then you lose nothing. If the controller can help, then you gain something. If the controller doesn’t seem to be happy with you because you’re making him or her work a little harder, then (as Spanish instructors say), that’s “Tough taco.” As I see it, progressive taxi instructions should be a mandatory service performed by ATC for each Hot Spot on an airport. Sure, this might slow down airport traffic a bit but it will also decrease the number of runway incursions and runway violations at that airport.

There’s an old saying suggesting that you can’t fool all the people all the time, unless you’re a freeway sign. Airport signs (and clearances) come in a close second here. If this were not the case, the FAA would have stopped tinkering with them years ago (they haven’t stopped). Of course, I don’t seriously suspect that the FAA will act on my tongue n’ cheek recommendations, much less any acceptable “government approved” variation of them. Perhaps the FAA will compromise and allow the placement of an ideogram near every runway showing a FAA stickman figure placing his stickhands in your stickpocket and removing your tiny sticklicense. The meaning of such a sign? Use caution during taxi so that no one can “stick” it to you.

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