Dec. 26, 2018

In a recent letter to airmen, the tower at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (ASE) said it would leave the lights for Runway 15 on during the day to avoid a wrong surface landing like the one on Jan. 7, 2018, when a Falcon Jet “misidentified the soft surface west of the airport” as the runway and “landed on the frozen sod west of and adjacent to the runway.”

Though there were no injuries or aircraft damage in that specific incident, wrong surface landings are a top safety issue for the FAA, said Heidi Williams, NBAA director of air traffic services and infrastructure. The association has participated in safety review panels to help develop FAA Air Traffic Organization’s Corrective Action Plans for those issues.

“From Fiscal Year 2016 through August 2018, the FAA has documented over 1,000 incidents involving improper runway alignment during landings or takeoffs, including pilots landing at the wrong airport,” said the FAA Air Safety Branch’s 2018 Year in Review.

Investigating the incident at Aspen included debriefing the crew involved, and others who flew into the airport that day, including one that took a photo, which shows how easily the two might be confused. “Several individuals reported visual illusions and possible confusion with the landing surface and the area adjacent to it,” according to the FAA. “Further review and discussion revealed an anecdotal history of similar events in the past.”

A team of stakeholders, including NBAA, participated in the safety panel created to mitigate this situation and prevent future occurrences, with the result being the daytime runway lights and the letter to airmen.

“Aircrews should expect runway lights to be operated on a middle setting during the daylight hours,” said the letter. “If that is contrary to pilot desires, notify the tower controller and the lights will be adjusted accordingly.”

The letter’s final item, said Williams, is good advice for any aircrew no matter where they are flying. “Inform ATC if you experience any similar visual confusion so we can continue to identify and mitigate the risk of wrong surface landings.”

Review the full letter to airmen.