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Runway Incursion Versus 'Incursion' on the Runway

By Patricia Mattison
Reprinted with the permission from FAA Aviation News

Runway incursions. What does that mean to you as a pilot? What does that mean to the general public? To the FAA, it is an extremely hot topic. The incidence of runway incursions throughout the United States has been on the rise, but many feel that this stems from the new awareness the aviation public has of the potential danger and are reporting more incidents. What we do know is that the aim of the Runway Safety Program is the reduction of runway incursions through education.

As pilots we are constantly aware of our surroundings when we are in the aircraft. This is especially true when we are going to a new area and an unfamiliar airport. Runway incursions occur for a variety of reasons. One of the causes could be misunderstanding or lack of communications. Another might be lack of preparation when traveling to a new airfield. Whatever the cause the end result could be disastrous. Just what is a runway incursion anyway?

According to the Runway Safety Report (cy 1999-2001), 'A runway incursion is any occurrence in the airport runway environment involving an aircraft, vehicle, person, or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in a loss of required separation with the aircraft taking off, intending to take off, landing, or intending to land.' This is only true when the control tower is in operation. However, that is the general idea. What about non-towered fields or when the tower is closed? Is a 'runway incursion' a non-issue under those circumstances? Not in my book!

Here in southeast Alaska we only have one airport with a control tower and that is in Juneau. All the rest are non-towered fields. This is not to say that they are uncontrolled, and everything is pure chaos. They are simply non-towered. The pilots have the responsibility of controlling their own actions when operating in the non-towered environment.

Alaska is unique in that we have some of the most interesting types of 'incursions.' For instance, Alaska Airlines hit a deer at Ketchikan some time ago causing enough damage to delay the flight. Bears can be a problem as can moose, elk, wolves, porcupines, seal (yes, seals), pedestrians, and children, who seem to think a runway is great fun on a bike. Remote dirt runways can sometimes double as a road. Other than required airport vehicles, most vehicles do not have a radio to announce their presence on the runway. Other aircraft can be a problem too, when they use the runway without announcing their intentions on the local Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF).

Recently a pilot in a small town spoke to me of an airplane positioning on the runway to take off and almost being run over by an airplane that had just crossed the runway threshold. If it hadn't been for the approaching airplanes very aware pilot the end result would have been tragic.

Back to awareness. When a pilot flies to an airfield that is new to that pilot or the conditions are unknown, a low fly-by to survey the field would be a smart choice. Many dirt strips are used during hunting and fishing season. Trees or other obstructions might have over grown the strip and weather might have eroded the landing area. Is that an incursion? Of course not! But animals that dart out from the brush could present an 'incursion' situation that would be difficult to avoid. An elk or moose (which can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds) hit by a plane would surely destroy the plane, injure or kill the occupants, and ruin the animal's whole day. I mustn't forget to include the birds.

There are huge flocks of birds that migrate every year. Rural airports in southeast Alaska are frequently located near water where waterfowl come to nest along their journey or nest. Birds will fly almost straight up and into the aircraft. Eagles have been known to dive at aircraft. I know of a bird strike where a goose penetrated the windscreen of an aircraft on approach to Yakutat. Fortunately, no one in the aircraft was hurt, but the airplane was damaged and the bird was killed.

It doesn't matter if a pilot is at a towered or a non-towered airport. The collision of two obstacles can sometimes be deadly. We can, by being aware and cautious, change the threat of runway incursions, improve statistics, and prevent potential accidents.

Patricia Mattison is the Safety Program Manager at the Juneau, Alaska Flight Standards District Office.