Runways, Hazard Avoidance, and Risk Management

On the first Saturday after a week of flooding, my wife and I manned up the CTSW for a one hour flight northwest to Brenham. A great hundred dollar burger restaurant named “The Southern Diner” hosts a 1950’s theme, complete with a sometimes seen pink Cadillac golf cart, always present waitresses in poodle skirts, and sometimes working juke box controls at the tables. In addition to being the first nice weather weekend since the flooding, it was spring, meaning there would be lots of flyers, motorcycle and car clubs, and tourists out to see how many bluebonnets might be pointing at the sky. Sure enough, when we got there, ramp space was getting tight but we found a place to park the CT on the ramp right at the entrance from the runway. There is always a crowd outside the FBO waiting for their seats underneath its awning, and I’m sure they thought the little CT pilot had lost it when I nosed it in and shut down facing the “wrong” way. While very nimble in the air, the CTSW is not so on the ground; its wide turning radius teaches you quickly that the best way to park is to face her in and then shut down, get out, push down on the tail, and spin her around on the mains.

The lunch was good and, though there were a few more bumps in the air than I had thought there would be, the flight was uneventful. Almost. As we flew the final approach to runway 14 at Pearland, a silver and yellow high wing taxied up to the hold short. Just before we crossed in front of it, the pilot called he was departing one four. The impatience of the call gave me a half second of pause before I got busy with landing my own airplane. We landed near the thousand foot markers and turned off at taxiway Bravo, which is roughly halfway down the four thousand, three hundred foot runway. As I started turning off the runway, my wife looked back. Obviously, she was also wondering where the impatient pilot was, too; she saw him airborne and climbing. He had taken off behind us while we were still on the runway.

There is no regulation preventing two aircraft from being on the runway at the same time at a non-towered field. (Yes, I have flown formation and do understand we are not talking about that case.) The question becomes what risk is involved in any particular operation. It also becomes a perfect example of the difference between using “hazard avoidance” or “risk management”.

I believe most pilots practice “hazard avoidance”, i.e., recognizing a hazard to the flight and then avoiding it if possible. For the pilot taking off, practicing “hazard avoidance” means waiting until the aircraft on the runway is completely clear before taking the runway. Doing so completely alleviates any risk to the other aircraft of some kind of aberration occurring during the takeoff run, making dealing with any emergency that could happen easier and more likely to have a good outcome for everyone involved. Using “risk management” means looking at what the risk might be (loss of control or systems failures like engine, flight control, landing gear, etc.), examining the outcome (collision, fire, injury or death) and then deciding whether to proceed based on likelihood. In this case, we assume the pilot figured he could be well above us by the time he crossed over us and the risk was acceptable. The problem I have with that, though, is that he was making a risk decision for BOTH of us. We’ll assume he at least thought it through enough to sidestep us as he went over. As I said in my earlier blog, the problem for most folks in estimating likelihood is that they are overconfident in their answer. It’s like running a stoplight; you get away with it until you don’t.

In prepping for this blog, I read through the latest runway incursion brochure from the FAA. It discusses runway incursions in the context of controlled field operations but says nothing about non-towered fields. Frankly, from what I’ve experienced, I’ve got more to worry about…especially with people pulling out in front of me on final (usually from being over-reliant on the radio for traffic control) at non-towered airfields than anywhere else. At fly-in’s or any kind of crowded aviation event, it may be difficult to avoid being on the runway at the same time as another aircraft and may seem like a time-waster when the runway is several thousand feet long. Just be sure you’re thinking about not only your safety but those you might endanger if things go wrong. Even if nothing bad happens, you also don’t want to be on the bad side of someone’s You Tube video or the FAA inspector who starts looking at you trying to figure out whether “careless”, “reckless” or both apply. Either of those will present arguments you are not going to win.