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Take Off from the Taxiway

Name withheld by request
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

What Happened

It all seemed so routine I left home at about 0530 for a 0700 flight scheduled to Memphis (MEM) with two passengers. Halfway to the airport my truck started to lose power and it looked like I would soon be on foot. I finally made it to the airport after stalling twice.Airport Diagram

At the hangar, I pre-flighted, stocked, and pulled out the aircraft. Next, I went inside and re-checked the weather and NOTAMs. I had filed the night before; the weather was clear in MEM. It looked to be a great flight. I was flying single pilot, because my usual stick mate had a flight to California later that day.

I have personal rules about not flying single pilot into weather or unfamiliar high-density airports and about not exceeding a 12-hour duty day with passengers on board. Still, I figured this flight would be fine given the excellent weather and my 10 trips to MEM in recent years. I figured I would have a 12-hour day and be able to depart for home during daylight hours.

My two passengers arrived shortly before 0700. I loaded them up, gave the safety brief, climbed in the cockpit, ran through the checklist, and fired up. As I started to taxi, one of the passengers said two more passengers were coming. I ran the engines to burn off some fuel, then shut down and removed the nose ballast required for weight and balance for single-pilot operations. I selected one passenger to ride up front with me and instructed him on the oxygen and seatbelt. We waited nearly an hour for the other two passengers. We got underway at 0757, about an hour behind schedule.

The flight to MEM was uneventful, except for winds that were not as favorable as forecast, which added to our tardiness. On the arrival and descent into MEM the vectors started for traffic creating further delay. We landed on 36R and taxied to the FBO. After a mix up with the rental car and another mix up with passenger items being incorrectly loaded into the crew car, the passengers finally got underway. They had five minutes to make the 20-minute run downtown to deliver their presentation.

After lunch, I returned to the FBO, fueled, prepared the aircraft, and then worked on my computer awaiting the return of my passengers for a planned 1700 departure. At about 1745 a passenger called to tell me they were going to stop for dinner and should be at the FBO at about 1830. They arrived at 1910. We loaded up and at approximately 1930 I contacted MEM ground for taxi, IFR to “XYZ.” It took three attempts to make contact with ground; the controller was clearly working several frequencies and getting frustrated.

I finally got clearance to taxi to 36L via taxiway Alpha and to hold short of taxiway Sierra. After a short hold at Sierra, I was instructed to continue taxiing to 36L via taxiway Alpha, then November. I monitored my progress on the airport diagram on my new multi-function display (MFD) on the panel. I remember thinking that this has got to be the best thing since heated wings. As more aircraft acquire this equipment, it should really cut down on the incursion numbers. How ironic.

I zoomed in on the airport diagram to see the taxiway letters better, to the point that I could only see the taxiway that I was on (November). It was a busy place: I was following one airliner, and had to wait for another to push back. I wound up following both airliners to runway 36L. I switched over to tower on 128.425. It seemed strange that the frequency was so quiet. I thought perhaps the tower had combined tower frequencies just as ground control had combined frequencies earlier during the taxi.

As I approached M2, a traffic alert on the MFD blanked out the airport diagram. I called the tower twice, with no reply, and then switched to 119.7. Again, no reply. I switched to 118.3 only to learn that I should be on 128.425.

In the process of switching frequencies I found I needed my “cheaters” (eyeglasses) to help with the low light, small print conditions. But with the glasses on, I couldn’t focus, because I discovered that one of the lenses had popped out and was nowhere in sight. Annoying, but I did not have time to look for it.

Right about then, the tower cleared me for a 36L departure. I dimmed the overhead light, and re-minded my passengers to be sure their safety belts were fastened. I remember being irritated because it was difficult to see. I taxied up to taxiway Mike—or so I thought—and went through the line-up items. Then I turned right, lined up on the centerline lights, and powered up. The problem was that I accelerated down what I thought was 36L…but it wasn’t. If I had just changed the airport diagram scale on my MFD, or been a little more vigilant, I would have seen that I was lined up on taxiway Mike. Between doing the speed checks, crosschecks, and looking for traffic, I failed to realize that I was not on 36L until just prior to rotation. I suddenly realized there were taxiway lights on both sides. My first thought was to get off that taxiway immediately. The quickest way off was to rotate, so I pulled back the yoke and side stepped to the runway. Right about then, the controller advised me that I had just departed from the taxiway and that he had a number for me to call after landing. It was the longest two hours and fifty minutes I have ever flown.

Why It Happened

I didn’t think it could happen to me, but this incident is a perfect example of what we have all heard at many aviation schools, seminars, cockpit resource management courses, and safety stand-downs about the “snowball effect.” It had been a day when nothing seemed to be going right. Delays, extended duty, fatigue, lack of nourishment, a hurry to get going all combined to create what could have been a fatal mistake.

We tend to look at hours of duty to gauge how performance is affected, but what happens before duty hours begin can have a major impact on how the duty day progresses. Without proper rest and nourishment, the cards began to stack against me. My day grew longer because I slept poorly. I skipped breakfast, so the only meal I had was lunch in MEM. I have no doubt that both factors played a part in this scenario.

As you might imagine, I’ve done a lot of “if only” thinking as well. The chain leading to this incident could have been broken at many points along the way. It could have been avoided:

  • IF I had taken a copilot.
  • IF we had been on schedule (and in daylight conditions)
  • IF I had scaled the airport diagram so as to see the bigger picture.
  • IF I had asked the tower to dim the lights that were distracting me.

But most of all:

  • IF I had not been in such a hurry to depart, I would have realized that things were stacking up, slowed down, and double checked myself. This could have made the difference.

This has been the toughest period of my aviation career, but I take comfort in two aspects of this experience. First, and most important, no one was harmed. Second, I have a chance to share my story with other aviators. If just one other pilot benefits by avoiding my mistakes, then it will have been worth writing.

The pilot involved in this story is a 12,000-hour ATP corporate pilot who has been flying since 1969. He is typed in C500, HS125, C525S, CV240, CV340, and CV440. He flew more than 35 different aircraft before retiring from a thirty-year government career in 2001. He has flown in the U.S. (including Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America. Since 2001, he has flown corporate as well as two seasons of fire fighting. His experience includes thousands of hours flying at night and on instruments. He also has hundreds of day and night intercepts on aircraft utilizing F-16 intercept radar, Forward Looking Infrared night flying in close formation. He has never scratched an aircraft, never busted a check ride, had no incidents, accidents, or violations, and, until now, never had a need to fill out a NASA report.