Nation’s first aviation Ph.D. program researches runway incursions

Ever since a collision of two airplanes at a Canary Islands airport caused the deaths of nearly 600 people, experts have been trying to do something about unauthorized vehicles or people on airport runways. But the rate of runway incursions keeps rising, and so does the potential of another disaster.

B.J. Goodheart, a 34-year-old student in the nation’s first aviation Ph.D. program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is determined to figure out why.

“Runway incursions are a big deal,” said Goodheart, who recently received funding for his investigation from the Transportation Research Board, a National Research Council body that promotes innovation in transportation through research and advises the President, Congress and federal agencies on transportation issues.

Figures from the FAA indicate that the rate of incursions per million aircraft operations increased from 12.3 to 18.9 between 2005 and 2010.

The Canary Islands disaster happened in 1977 when two Boeing 747s collided at Tenerife Airport. One of the airliners was not supposed to be on the runway.

Goodheart, who is combining quantitative data from past incursions with first-hand accounts by pilots who were involved, is one of 42 students in the Embry-Riddle doctoral program, which gives aviation professionals research skills that will enable them to have a greater impact on their industry.

“Our mission is to prepare scholars whose research in the aviation field will lead to solutions that benefit others,” said Alan Stolzer, chair of the aviation Ph.D. program, which began in 2010. “They will be able to solve problems in ways they weren’t able to do before. They’ll approach problems in a more scientific manner.”

The degree was ideal for Goodheart, an aviation claims manager for general aviation insurance broker AirSure, where he manages safety and training programs for airport service operators, charter air carriers and corporate flight departments. His Ph.D. research tackles a safety concern of his clients.

Goodheart’s fellow doctoral students work in aviation as accident investigators, educators, pilots, regulators, safety managers and technology developers.

Like him, they find their Ph.D. dissertation ideas on the job. They’re researching cockpit systems that alert pilots of runway obstructions, the human factor in runway collisions, certification of drones in civilian airspace, teaching better crew communications, multicultural differences in pilot performance, and airline bankruptcy forecasting models.

Students in the Embry-Riddle program take courses online and complete three weeklong residencies at one of the university’s two residential campuses, in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Prescott, Ariz.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offers more than 40 baccalaureate, master’s and Ph.D. degree programs in its colleges of Arts and Sciences, Aviation, Business and Engineering. The university is a major research center, seeking solutions to real-world problems in partnership with the aerospace industry, other universities and government agencies.

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  1. Leonard Morgan says

    Dear Ms. Wood: this short note addresses runway incursions.

    I am a CFIA w/IME. I’m retired from industry (Engineering and Management), railroad and Oregon Air National Guard.

    Everyone who drives a car is conditioned to traffic lights and their meaning, be it green, yellow or red. Major airports in the USA and overseas for that matter, would see a decrease in runway incursions if a traffic light system were in place to regulate and control ground movement of traffic. This coupled with controller instructions alert pilots to dangerous situations that occassionally occur at busy terminals.

    Ground control instructions are sometimes confusing or distorted to the pilot who is not functioning 100% due to distractions of one kind or another or not hearing the controllers instructions or following them. Sometimes pilots second guess controllers as they are in a hurry to depart. (One reason I’ve heard is aviation fuel prices being what they are, are a means to rush some pilots as they feel they are burning too much fuel on the ground.) I’d cite being in too much of a hurry and or not concentrating on what they should as major causes of incursions. Surely, lack of common sense comes in here somewhere.

    A traffic light ground signal system (low to the ground) would reinforce controller instructions. The traffic lights can be controlled automatically or manually. In all cases, they can be overridden by the ground controller. Pilots can confirm with the controller light aspect if in doubt.

    Additionally, those pilots with glass panel capability would do well should the manufactures provide a diagram of the airport runway and taxiways by indicating through their GPS, their position on the airport and show light aspect at critical junctions. This coupled with ground control instructions would provide confidence to both the controller and pilot.

    These elementary suggestions should and could tremendiously prevent runway incursions and provide safer ground control for the pilot and ground controller. Ultimately, it is still up to the pilot to practice professionalism every time he or she gets into the cockpit. In the Air Force we say: “Stay Alert, Stay Alive”.

    As a engineer, I think such a system could be installed at a reasonable cost based on the size of the aerodrome. It is a manner on how complicated one makes the system. Small airport, small cost. Big airport, a lot of dollars. A study is really needed to determine feasibility and cost. The lights can be activated through remote control frequency and lights battery activated via solar cell as an example.

    Thank you for your time.


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