Despite efforts across the aviation community to reduce the risk of runway excursions, the issue remains a hurdle in the larger effort to improve flying safety. In fact, it sometimes appears that, if anything, the number of runway excursions continues to increase.
But is that the case?
“Since 2016, we’ve tracked business aviation runway excursions on a daily basis,” explained Dan Boedigheimer, CEO of training provider Advanced Aircrew Academy. “It’s remained pretty steady at one every couple of weeks, with between 25-30 excursions involving business aircraft each year.”
Further contributing to the impression that runway excursions are happening more often are spikes in certain months. For example, five such incidents that involved business aircraft occurred in January 2020.
“Four of those five incidents involved runways contaminated with ice or snow,” Boedigheimer said. “However, we’ll often see a similar spike in the summertime with wet runways and gusty winds as well.”
“I don’t know that we’re seeing more excursions, but we have had some high-profile incidents,” said Ben Kohler, CAM, captain for a large pharmaceutical provider and head of the NBAA Safety Committee’s Industry Issues Team. “Seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s plane run off the runway focuses more attention on the issue than when a Cessna 150 runs off the side of a runway.”
The August 2019 Earnhardt accident involved a Cessna C680A Citation Latitude that departed the runway end, passed through a chain-link fence and came to rest at the edge of an adjacent highway. The flight crew told investigators that a go-around was attempted following a second bounce on landing, but the aircraft did not respond as anticipated. All passengers and crew escaped the burning aircraft.
Such incidents also highlight the possibility that a runway excursion can occur even at an airport familiar to the flight crew and on dry runways, under clear skies and in moderate winds. Such ideal conditions breed their own risks, as they may lead to complacency or an often-subconscious desire to rush a takeoff or landing approach.
Not Just a Winter Problem
Winter typically brings an increase in runway excursions involving aircraft landing on snow- and ice-covered runways. In November 2019, an Embraer ERJ-145LR regional jet (similar to the manufacturer’s Legacy 600 business aircraft) overran the runway on landing at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in winter weather conditions. The aircraft’s starboard main landing gear collapsed as the aircraft departed the runway’s left side approximately 5,250 feet from the approach threshold.
While such incidents may fit a typical definition of runway excursions, crews shouldn’t think that similar events can’t happen outside of winter.
“When we hear about runway contamination, we usually think of snow or ice,” Kohler explained. “However, landing on a short runway, for your aircraft, that isn’t crowned or grooved, during or after even a moderate rain shower, really means you are landing on a short and most likely contaminated runway. Is that really what you want to do? What have you done to mitigate that risk?
“I don’t know that we’re seeing more excursions, but we have had some high-profile incidents. ”
Ben Kohler CAM, Captain for a large pharmaceutical provider
Inadvertent departures from runways may also occur on takeoff. In August 2019, a Cessna Citation Bravo exited the runway on takeoff from Oroville, CA and caught fire moments after its two-person crew evacuated the aircraft. Investigators later found rubber transfer marks leading from the departure runway’s hold short line through to the point the jet departed off the side of the runway.
While the NTSB has not yet issued its probable cause ruling on that accident, such events highlight the need for flight crews to maintain vigilance through the takeoff sequence.
“Any anomaly on takeoff should be a huge red flag,” said Larry Karpurk, a senior pilot for the Salt River Project and member of the NBAA Safety Committee. “Crews may recognize a problem, but not necessarily comprehend its severity. They think, ‘we’ll be airborne soon and we’ll sort it out then.’
“I’ve learned over my years of flying to trust that gut feeling or ‘little voice’ that tells you something isn’t quite right,” continued Karpurk. “When such instincts interrupt our thought processes, we should immediately start asking why.”
Breaking the Error Chain
As with any accident sequence, usually more than one factor leads to a runway excursion. Familiarity with an airport, or the presence of fair-weather conditions, may lead to complacency or a desire to rush a takeoff or landing approach. Lack of data available to flight crews also increases the risk of a runway excursion.
“There are always multiple opportunities to break the error chain, and one of breakdowns we’ve seen is a lack of knowledge of what actual [runway] conditions are,” Boedigheimer said. “The FAA implemented TALPA (the Takeoff and Landing Performance Assessment tool) two years ago, but those conditions may not be reported on a reliable basis at smaller airports used by business aircraft.”
Despite efforts under TALPA to standardize runway condition assessment matrix (RCAM) reporting and disseminate it through the NOTAM system, not all airports report that information the same way, or at all.
Also contributing to this lack of information is a gap in aircraft performance charts from the manufacturer, particularly among business aircraft, which may not correlate aircraft-stopping data with RCAM runway condition codes identifying various levels of surface contamination.
“You must assess your exposure to the risk and understand your aircraft and its performance data,” Kohler said. “The risk you face is different if you’re flying out of large airports with excellent weather and RCAM reporting, versus a turboprop pilot flying to uncontrolled fields with no weather reporting or Unicom. Assess your exposure, and then mitigate the risks with the appropriate guidance.”
Kohler further noted that even the manufacturer’s performance data should be approached with some degree of skepticism.
“OEMs want to show extremely short stopping distances, but we must understand how they obtained that data,” said Kohler. “A brand-new airplane flown by test pilots specifically for that purpose is not how most people will usually fly an airplane.” Additionally, some OEMs provide the stopping distance from point of touchdown, not landing distance that includes the approach over the runway.
Review NBAA’s runway excursion reduction resources at nbaa.org/runway-excursions.
Revised NBAA Safety Resource in the Works
Larry Karpurk, a senior pilot for the Salt River Project, is leading a team that is updating NBAA’s Reducing Business Aviation Runway Excursions, a 16-page guide first published in 2016 under the auspices of the NBAA Safety Committee.
“We’re going to define and classify the accepted elements of runway safety, explain causes of excursions, as well as solutions, and identify operational hotspots,” explained Karpurk. “That also involves establishing situational markers – activities that make you pause and reflect on your selected course of action and question whether it’s acceptable to continue with it.”
Additional updates will include aligning language with that used in the International Standard for Business Aviation Operations (IS-BAO) and examination of data-monitoring systems and databases.
“We’re also creating a training syllabus to engage flight operation personnel in discussing new processes and procedures to avoid runway excursions, versus just throwing a book on the table for them to read,” Karpurk concluded. “Our goal is a comprehensive solution that creates a cultural shift in promoting runway safety across our industry.” The updated resource is scheduled to be available later this year.