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Right Place, Wrong Surface

Source: FAA Safety Briefing Mar/Apr 2021
By Susan K. Parson

aerial view of runway

When I lived on the East Coast, I sometimes used my then-flying club’s C182 Skylane to visit family in North Carolina. Several years ago, I was making such a trip, and my destination was Elizabeth City, NC (KECG). It was a lovely VFR day, but since my instrument rating was fairly fresh at the time, I was on an IFR flight plan to exercise my new privileges and to get some easy practice with IFR procedures. What could possibly go wrong?

The route was familiar to me, and I knew from the landmarks I could see below that ECG wasn’t that far away. I also knew that it was way past time to descend from the assigned altitude of 7,000 feet mean sea level (MSL) if I wanted to reach the 1,511 foot MSL traffic pattern altitude at ECG without making one of those “slam-dunk” descents I had heard other pilots lament. I asked ATC — again — for lower and got one of those “talk-to-the-next-controller” replies. What I should have done, of course, was to cancel IFR so I could manage my own flight path — see and avoid was no problem at all that day. But I didn’t.

Not-So-Great Expectations

The next controller did clear me to descend, so all my attention went into getting down without breaking all the club’s warnings to avoid “shock-cooling” the C182 engine. I was still scanning the various gadgets and gauges when I checked in with the ECG tower controller a few miles from the airport. He assigned Runway 10 for landing, which would have put me on a left base entry. But what I “heard” him tell me — here’s expectation bias in action — was to expect Runway 01. It’s not hard to understand how my brain transposed those digits. During the ongoing descent and configuration flurry, I specifically remember thinking that a landing on Runway 01 would be perfect because a downwind leg to that piece of pavement would give me a little more time to get the airplane (and myself ) ready. I nailed the traffic pattern altitude just as I entered the downwind for Runway 01, and I was breathing a satisfied sigh of relief when a little voice in my head clued me in to the earlier “mishearing.”

Right about the time my thumb went for the push-to-talk switch to clarify, the tower controller called to ask if I realized my clearance had been for Runway 10. I immediately and humbly confessed, offering to go around and set up for the correct runway. “That’s okay,” came the response. “No conflicting traffic, so you’re cleared to land Runway 01. That happens sometimes around here; just be more careful next time.” While this exchange made it clear that this bobble was not likely to become an official pilot deviation, I did file an Aviation Safety Reporting System report (aka “NASA report”) partly as insurance against a possible sanction, but also to help other pilots learn from my lapse.

I’ve never forgotten the lesson and, thanks to the addition of a disciplined write-it-down procedure, I’ve never come close to repeating that particular mistake. It also made me hyper-aware of how easy it can be to infringe on runway safety. Thus motivated, I dug into some of the runway safety tips we have been touting in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, and eventually incorporated these and other “learn-from-my-mistakes” lessons into my own aviation instruction practices later on. Never assume that you are immune ... without constant vigilance, you can easily find yourself on the wrong surface.

Susan K. Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

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