Friday, February 07, 2014

Keeping It Between the Lights

About ten years ago a crew landed a Boeing 737 at Edmonton International in the fog and snow, and touched down beside the runway instead of on it. They got the airplane back on the runway after taking out a sign and a bunch of lights, and no one was hurt. The poor pilots had been up for almost twenty-four hours by the time it happened.

I feel so badly for them. I've landed at Edmonton International at night, and there are a lot of lights. When you land on a northern, snow-covered runway you find the rows of lights or reflectors and you land between them. You can't see the runway. It's exactly the same black and then reflective white as the area outside the runway. You just flare and hope the information you got on the depth of the snow and how packed it is was correct.

I think I did a similar thing when I was a commercial student, landing on a grass field. It was an actual field, just your standard chunk of turf in between the farm roads. There was a windbreak of poplar trees planted along one side, and then a line of tires showing the edge of the area they considered the runway. Presumably the "runway" side was more packed down from landing aircraft, more frequently mowed, and checked for rocks, mole hills, and the like. The CFS entry for the airport didn't mention the tires and I think I may have landed on the wrong side of them. I don't even remember--that's how un-serious my incident was. It could have been bad had the ground been soft or the grass really long and hiding obstacles on the "bad" side. I just remember that someone later told me which was the correct side. Obviously it wasn't an international airport, and before someone put the tires there I'm sure folks just landed all over.

Last time I landed at CYEG it was night, and the end of my working day. The controller asked me to turn a five mile final, but not knowing the local night time landmarks well it was difficult for me to choose a bearing that would set me up for that. I could easily turn final five miles from the airport, but I didn't have a waypoint set for the threshold of the runway, and single pilot at night, and tired in descent for a runway is a really bad place to start calculating a lat and long based off runway information, or perhaps there was a waypoint on a GPS plate, and then programming a lat and long out of a book into the GPS. Normally for that sort of thing you can use the runway as a yardstick and just mentally extend it to where you need to join, but the layout of runways at the International there combined with the angle I was approaching from made it tricky. So I did that thing that is free and safe and doesn't require me to take my eyes off the instruments or the scenery: I asked the controller a question similar to, "does this look good for where you want me to intercept final?" I probably threw in the word "unfamiliar," as well. The controller has a radar screen that shows the runways, and my blip, and he has tools that can show my extended track and distance, but he probably doesn't need them as his job is to look at blips and know whether they will conflict. It definitely made me look less cool. I couldn't pretend to be a completely fearless pilot utterly blasé in the face of any danger. But it saved me a couple of minutes in the air, because the controller told me I was free to fly direct to the threshold. And who wants a pilot inured to danger when you can have one who gets you there safely?

This is in no means intended to imply that the 737 crew wouldn't have had their incident had they asked for help. I was only trying to point out that on a beautiful visibility night a pilot who is a lot less tired can get confused. The visibility was terrible for these guys and they must have been exhausted. The upside is that their company changed the procedures after that, so crews no longer risked having to do that night landing after being up for a full day.


Colin said...

My closest call was at night.

(Deleted the original because I didn't make the link clickable and then... shame.)

SaferAviator said...

At least three good human factors things here:
1) flying tired
2) ATC instructions that look good on radar, but may not be clear in the cockpit
3) field markings that only the locals understand

Thanks for sharing the lessons.,


nec Timide said...

One of the magic words in aviation "unfamiliar". I'm sure controllers don't exactly like to hear it. But I'm sure they would rather hear it first hand than have to work it out from the evidence later.

I've done all my night landings on snow covered runways while well rested. Even then I quickly decided that it was best left as an exercise for those who had to do it. As a private pilot I never have to commit aviation.

majroj said...

Airfield lighting CAN be treacherous even to drivers. One blue light run down or snowplowed and suddenly a ten foot deep drainage canal between taxiways looks like the mouth ONTO the taxiway in the dark.

BAM…where'd he go??!

What would be the BEST means of marking the active runways so pilots have a lessened chance of missing them, from the pilot's perspective?