Friday, September 08, 2006

The Pilot In Command Is Called That For A Reason

American Thinker on who was at fault in the Lexington, Kentucky crash a couple of weeks ago. None of this is earth-shattering news to pilots, but may be of interest to non-pilots.


What is interesting, is that if you look at the airport diagram for Lexington Blue Grass International, the departure end of both runway 22 and 26 are nearly inline when viewed from the tower. The two runway headings differ by only 40 degrees. With conditions as they were the morning of the crash – a light rain falling a little before dawn – it’s very possible that even if a controller in the tower had been watching Flight 5191 as it lined up and started its takeoff roll, he may not have immediately realized that the aircraft was moving down the wrong runway. After all, in either case it would have been moving laterally to his field of view. With visibility and lighting conditions as they were, depth of field and perception would have been reduced.

At major airports with high volumes of traffic, radar is used for aircraft separation and control both on the ground as well as in the air. Some very large facilities, such as Chicago’s O’Hare, even have more than one ground control frequency depending on where you are while taxiing. This is to reduce the level of “chatter” to avoid confusion and reduce the chance of error and accident. The ground control radar is used to track aircraft independent of visibility.

You will never find this level of control and supervision of ground traffic at an airport such as Lexington. It is just too expensive and would be wasteful. The controller at a small airport, especially during periods of light traffic, would merely give the pilot the takeoff runway, surface winds, barometer setting for the altimeter and the ATC frequency to contact after takeoff, if that hadn’t been given with the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) clearance.

If there wasn’t any other traffic operating in the area, this information could include the magic words, “Comair 5191 you are cleared for takeoff runway…” Prior to taking off those exact words must be received from the controlling authority at an airport with an operating control tower- “You are cleared for takeoff.”

If you takeoff without that clearance, you can be cited for a violation of FAA rules. For landing the magic words are “You are cleared to land runway…” This is true, believe it or not, world-wide for international traffic. Part of the pilots’ bible. If Comair 5191 had been so cleared, no further communication is required or necessary between the tower controller and the aircraft. It’s strictly up to the pilot to find the right runway. Sure, the tower would alert the pilot if they noticed that something was amiss. But it is not in any way the controller’s responsibility to place the pilot on the correct runway for takeoff. After all, he’s not operating the aircraft. The pilot is.

Regarding all the chatter about airport construction, new taxiways, barriers, lighting not being on or not working, the situation is similar. In the wonderful world of aviation we have what’s acronymically called “NOTAMS.” That is, “Notices to Airmen.” Anything that can affect operations at an airport, be it repairs, closures, openings, or modifications of runways, taxiways, lighting, et cetera, will be in the NOTAMS for that airfield both prior to (if possible) and subsequent to any such changes or restorations. The same is true for instrument approach procedures, changes to the traffic pattern, runway markings, navigational aids, communication frequencies, new or modified significant structures in the vicinity of the field or along approach or departure paths, and so forth. Just about anything and everything that could possibly impact operations will be in the NOTAMS. Fail to read and heed these at your own peril. You might even takeoff on the wrong runway. Sorry, fellas. Such things may contribute to an error but they are no excuse or justification for not paying attention.

The federal aviation regulations are quite clear on who has ultimate responsibility for the safety of a flight. It is the pilot.

The American Thinker piece also mentions what is supposed to be standard pilot procedure to prevent just this sort of thing:

The number on a runway is the magnetic compass direction of that runway rounded to the nearest ten degrees. However, if you check the airport diagram for Lexington Blue Grass, you’ll see that though the actual direction is 225.3, it’s still designated runway 22 and not runway 23. You can also see a visual representation for the magnetic variation on the airport diagram. Note that magnetic variation “varies” over time as shown on the diagram. So the number on the runway will have to be changed at some time in the future. But the important thing to remember is that the runway number’s purpose is to distinguish it from other runways. If you have parallel runways, as does Detroit’s Metro Airport which has three parallel runways, they end up with the same number but with the suffices L, C, & R for “Left”, “Center”, and “Right” When you line up an a runway, your “whiskey” compass – so-called because the bowl is filled with alcohol as a dampening fluid for this purely magnetic compass – and your heading indicator, which is a gyroscopic instrument, should both read approximately the same magnetic direction as the runway. If not, you have one of two problems. First, you’re lined up on the wrong runway or, second, one or both of your directional reference is malfunctioning. Before taking off, one would be well advised to find out which it is!

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