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August 28, 2006

Dubious Runways

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A major news story from yesterday was the crash of a regional jetliner at Lexington, KY. The death toll was 49, the last I checked.

Newspaper ledes indicate that the pilot mistakenly was on a runway that was too short for the aircraft to take off. I also noticed that there might have been a case of runway confusion at Louisville in the past. Plus there were temporary changes in taxiing routes put in place quite recently due to construction work that might have added to any intrinsic confusion there.

I'm not a pilot, so what little I know of runways and taxiways comes from looking out the window next to my seat. What I see seems pretty confusing to me, especially at night when most of what's visible is different-colored lights. I have to assume that professional pilots can "read" the light patterns easily. I further assume that airline pilots carry airport charts along with route maps and other reference material.

Taxiing appears to be the trickiest bit because taxiways tend to be defined more by paint and lights rather than by the surface material. A runway is pretty clearly a runway. At major airports, it's made of thick reinforced concrete, probably with grooves to help traction and drainage. Then there are those big white stripes marking the ends plus lots of black rubber marks (visible in daylight) that result from tire contact from landings. Runway ends also have large painted "names" such as L24 or R18 having to do with position and compass orientation.

Things were simpler at the Los Cabos airport at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula last week when I was on a trip there. After flying along the west shore of the Sea of Cortez -- mostly desert -- we came to a greener area as we made our descent. Then the plane touched down. Wing spoilers were raised, thrust reversers were activated, brakes were applied, all as expected.

When we reached the end of the runway, the plane edged over to the right side and then made a U-turn. Huh?? Then we taxied back down the runway we had just landed on -- all the way to the other end -- before turning off towards the passenger terminals. Two departing airliners were impatiently waiting for us to complete our taxi.

Now, Los Cabos gets a fair amount of traffic thanks to the tourist trade. Yet the airport has just a simple landing strip set in the midst of brush and Saguaro cacti. No parallel taxiways. There is a reasonable amount of concrete near the terminals where loading and unloading take place. But there are no jetways, just stairs or ramps.

This runway-only business certainly surprised me and created a mixed introduction to Los Cabos -- just how primitive is this place?!? On the other hand, the Louisville type of incident couldn't possibly have happened at Cabos.

I suspect that some of you have had far more "interesting" runway/taxiway experiences.



posted by Donald at August 28, 2006


The crash happened at a small, regional airport in Lexington, not Louisville. Louisville's airport is quite a bit larger.

Posted by: eek on August 28, 2006 10:30 PM

You are right.

I'm scrambling to wrap up work before retiring Thursday p.m. and didn't bother to double-check that detail. I'll correct the post.

Thanks for the heads-up: I appreciate it.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 29, 2006 10:59 AM

Let me drop in my professional two cents here:

Every airline pilot is issued complete maps of every airport in use.

Every airline pilot is instructed to check the magnetic/gyro heading of the aircraft against that of the intended runway.

Every airline pilot must read back and acknowledge every runway assignment, and every air traffic controller must immediately correct any errors.

There are layers upon layers of safety designed to protect this and almost any other concievable incident from happening.

There are around a million airline departures each year in America. This is the one in a million time when every layer of safety failed.

Posted by: secret asian man on August 29, 2006 3:11 PM

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