On dangerous ground

© CASA | Karen Scrimes

Runway incursions remain an aviation hazard.

The hazards of flight are not confined to the air. Every pilot should know that the deadliest crash in aviation history was a runway incursion, the Tenerife collision of March 1977 that killed 583 people.

ICAO defines runway incursions as: ‘Any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, person, animal or object on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take-off of aircraft.’

In plain language, a runway incursion is an aircraft, vehicle, animal or object being where it shouldn’t be. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is dangerous anywhere, in aviation it is deadly.

Runway incursions have a nasty habit of occurring anywhere, anytime, literally out of the blue. Although the Tenerife crash happened in fog, a 2013 study conducted by Purdue University in the US found there was a higher likelihood of incursions in clear weather, during daylight hours, and at airports with a control tower.

A study by the FAA found controller error accounted for 16 per cent of runway incursions, pilot deviation resulted in 63 per cent of incursions, and vehicle or pedestrian deviation preceded 21 per cent of incursions.

Of runway incursions that were prompted by pilot deviation, 77 per cent were caused by general aviation pilots, the FAA found. This stands to reason, and is a reflection of GA pilots’ experience and exposure, not their aptitude. Most GA pilots do not fly as many hours as commercial pilots and, therefore, are less exposed to runway and taxiway layouts.

An analysis in 2000 by Flight Safety Australia of occurrence reports held by the ATSB revealed that the majority of runway incursions involve a failure to follow air traffic control instructions.

Approximately 85 per cent of runway incursions in the period 1997–1999 occurred after the failure of the defence of ‘ATS procedures, facilities and standards’. Of the ATS failures, nearly 94 per cent are further classified as ‘clearances and instructions’ failures. In just over 90 per cent of the incursions, Air Traffic Services noticed the problem, and the situation did not become more serious.

More than ten years later the problem persists. From recent Australian Transport Safety Bureau files:

  • On 27 May 2013, a Piper PA-31 encountered an airport firefighting vehicle on take-off from Karratha in WA.
  • AN ATR 72 landed at Moranbah Airport, Queensland,
    on 5 March 2014, while a safety car was on the runway.
  • On 28 March 2014 at Toowoomba in Queensland a Bombardier Dash 8 entered the runway that a Cessna 172 was landing on. Luckily the smaller aircraft was able to stop in time.
  • On 17 April 2014, a Dash 8 and an ATR-72 were involved in a runway incident at Gladstone in Queensland.

New OnTrack out August!

OnTrack is your interactive guide to operating in and around Australia’s controlled airspace. It’s your internet-based pilot’s manual for Australia’s general aviation airports.

Following extensive filming and interviews with ATC, airports and chief pilots around Australia, OnTrack has been completely revised. There is a new interactive layout; a new location, Townsville, added to the existing 12; manoeuvring maps for each of the locations; and high-definition video of approaches and departures. The visual terminal charts are tied to Google Earth for more accurate coordinates. And for rotary pilots, there’s now coverage of helicopter operations at the busy GA aerodromes.

Pilots can also print out notes and photographs from the various approaches.

The new OnTrack is an even better tool for planning and visualising your flight to a new aerodrome, or checking the procedures and routes of a familiar aerodrome. Visit www.casa.gov.au/ontrack

Why do runway incursions occur?

Factors increasing the risk of runway incursions include:

  • inattention or distraction
  • poor visibility on the aerodrome
  • aerodrome complexity
  • use of non-standard phraseology leading to confusion or misunderstanding between pilots and ATC
  • call-sign confusion leading to pilots acting on an ATC instruction intended for another aircraft
  • inadequate, confusing, or a lack of, knowledge regarding aerodrome signage, markings or lights
  • loss of ATC and/or pilot situational awareness
  • aerodrome construction work

What can you do to prevent runway incursions?

Planning your taxi and take-off

  • Take the time to thoroughly plan the surface movement of your flight
  • Use a current aerodrome chart for planning and have it available during taxi
  • Identify when you need to be in ‘heads-up’ mode on the aerodrome

Taxi procedures

  • Whenever possible, obtain your airways clearance before requesting your taxi clearance
  • Write down taxi instructions, especially if they are complex
  • All runways are considered active at all times and require a specific ATC clearance to enter or cross
  • Exercise caution if another aircraft has a similar-sounding call sign
  • Read back all required instructions/clearances with your call sign
  • If you are unfamiliar with the layout of a controlled aerodrome, don’t hesitate to call ATC for assistance. They would rather help you than correct you later.

Situational awareness

  • Ensure you understand and follow all ATC clearances and instructions
  • Monitor the radio and use a current aerodrome chart to assist you locating other aircraft and vehicles on the aerodrome
  • Advise ATC as early as possible if you anticipate a delay or are unable to comply with their instructions
  • DO NOT allow yourself to be distracted by matters not directly related to the flight. You can best achieve this by making a sterile cockpit (no non-operational talk) part of the taxi and takeoff procedure.


  • Use standard phraseology and pay close attention to ATC instructions when taxiing
  • Prepare what you are going to say before using the radio. Say it clearly and concisely and acknowledge all clearances
  • Listen out before transmitting to ensure you do not over-transmit or interrupt another station
  • If you have any doubt about an instruction or clearance, always seek clarification from ATC.

Aerodrome markings, signs and lights

  • Ensure you understand the meaning of visual aids on the aerodrome including markings, signs and lights
  • Never cross an illuminated stop bar.

Be seen, be safe: using your lights

Aircraft have several lighting systems. Using them correctly will make you safer on the ground and in the air. There’s a hierarchy for using lights so as not to stress aircraft batteries or overload checklists.

  • Engines running: turn on the rotating beacon.
  • Taxiing: before taxiing, turn on rotating beacon, navigation, taxi and logo lights if available.
  • Crossing a runway: all exterior lights should be illuminated when crossing a runway. However, consider any adverse effects on safety that illuminating the forward facing lights will have on the vision of other pilots or ground personnel during runway crossings.
  • Entering the departure runway following an instruction to line up and wait: turn on all exterior lights to make your aircraft more conspicuous to aircraft on final and to ATC. In some circumstances this may include using your landing lights if you believe it is warranted.
  • Take off: turn on landing lights when take-off clearance is received, or when commencing take-off roll at an aerodrome without an operating control tower.

Further information

Runway Incursions: A Case Study Analysis Bradley G. Cozza, John P. Young 12 April, 2013

Airservices Australia Runway Safety pages


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