We were on an out and back — Dulles to Newark, Newark to Dulles. Our assigned aircraft had just come out of maintenance. The captain flew the Newark leg. No issues. I flew us back to Dulles. We landed uneventfully on Runway 19R. I applied the reverse thrusters, and then I applied the brakes. That’s when the plane started to pull to the left.
The captain called “off the brakes!” I did, but we continued to pull to the left.
A “brake temp” amber caution light came on and an alarm sounded. The captain risked stepping on the brakes enough to make sure we made the left-hand runway exit safely. Then he stopped us there between Runways 19L and 19R.
I called Ground Control about our situation. They rolled the trucks. The captain notified the passengers. We ran the Brake Fire Emergency Checklist. That involved shutting down both motors and the auxiliary power unit. It also meant waiting for the crash and fire rescue personnel to give us the all clear to evacuate.The main cabin door was on the left side of the plane, the same side as the overheating brakes. Evacuation was a no go.
Plus without buses to carry the passengers, they would have had to scramble across Runway 19L to the terminal and their connecting flights. Bad for business to lead passengers into danger.
Meanwhile, the cabin of our regional jet quickly heated up.
The captain kept the passengers informed of our situation and apologized for any inconvenience. Customer Service worked on finding reroutes on missed connections and updated me over the radio.
None of that seemed to matter to some passengers. We could hear the complaints through the flight deck door.
Finally, we got the all clear and the buses had also arrived. No one thanked us for keeping them safe. In fact, a few passengers expressed how inconsiderate it was for us to keep them stuck on the runway in a hot plane while they missed their connections, as if we had purposely engineered that day’s drama.
I wasn’t angry, just disappointed at the lack of appreciation.
I started out writing a column about runway incidents involving aircraft tire blowouts. But in researching the topic, I discovered that sometimes tire blowouts bring out the weird in people. And by weird, I mean the inconsiderate.
For instance, a Lancair pilot submitted a report to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System after suffering a blown left tire on landing rollout, except he wasn’t really submitting the NASA because of the blowout. He filed a NASA report for what happened afterward.
He managed to stop the plane about 2,000 feet down a 7,000-foot runway, left of center line.
“I had blown my left main gear tire. Biggest negative was that the following aircraft called in and wanted us just to push the plane off the runway so he could land.”
Even though airport personnel temporarily closed the runway, the following pilot landed anyway, before the disabled Lancair was clear of the runway.
According to the reporting pilot, if the other pilot had waited the 10 minutes it took for ground personnel to tow his plane off the runway, there would not have been an issue.
That the second pilot felt it more important to land right away rather than let airport personnel rule out foreign object debris (FOD) on the runway raises concerns about that pilot’s mental state, or concerns about whose interest that pilot put first.
We don’t know why the second pilot thought it was a good idea to land on an occupied runway. He filed no NASA report and no discussion was recorded in the filed NASA. Nor had he declared an emergency before landing.
All we do know is that his actions lacked consideration of some basic aviation courtesies and situational awareness.
For example, the Lancair pilot reported finding a screw in his tire, an indication there was FOD on the runway. It’s possible the same source of FOD that blew the Lancair tire had spread FOD farther down the runway, jeopardizing all landing traffic.
Also, a tire that blows on the runway can produce its own debris. The second pilot didn’t appear to have considered the potential FOD hazard.
The pilot knowingly landed with personnel on the runway, endangering rescue personnel and the Lancair pilot. Leaving aside the obvious, the pilot failed to consider the possibility of loss of control of his own aircraft.
An Ercoupe pilot reported his experience via a NASA report after landing over another airplane, also with a blown tire. The reporting pilot was in the midst of the flight portion of his biennial flight review when a Beech Baron ahead of him in the pattern landed. It blew a tire and was pulled over to the edge of the runway, approximately one-quarter of the way down 6,000-foot Runway 23 at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (KSHD).
“I had not flown fixed wing for four years. I was with a CFI on our third landing. My CFI assessed the situation and told me to land long since we had at least 4,000 feet of runway and we were low on gas.”
The FBO operator got on the Unicom frequency and told the Ercoupe pilot he could not land while the Baron was still on the runway. He did anyway.
“Although we cleared the Baron and landed with runway to spare, I should have remembered that a disabled plane on the runway effectively closes that runway,” he concluded in his NASA report.
I like to think most pilots would never land on an occupied runway, unless they had an emergency with no other options available. I like to think most would also avoid landing on a closed runway.
I like to think they wouldn’t land as a courtesy to the other, distressed pilot, or at least because they feared violating a regulation.
Now I have to change my thinking. The truth is there is no regulation expressly prohibiting landing on an occupied or closed runway.
CFR 91.13 warns pilots about operating an aircraft, in the air or on the ground, in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.
But who defines careless or reckless?
Both the Ercoupe pilot and his CFI had two solid reasons why they weren’t being careless. They knowingly landed on an occupied runway because they felt they were low on fuel. They also perceived sufficient runway past the Baron to land safely.
The Ercoupe pilot wrote he had cleared the Baron by at least 150 feet. In his mind that meant there was no conflict.
CFR 91.111 says no person may operate an aircraft so close to another aircraft as to create a collision hazard. That rule applies both to aircraft in the air and on the ground. It leaves to interpretation what constitutes a collision hazard.
In the air, the FAA considers a collision hazard any two aircraft within 500 feet of each other. On the ground, the FAA calls “the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and takeoff of aircraft” a runway incursion.
But when is a runway incursion a violation? That depends.
After all, CFR 91.3 gives pilots the ultimate authority to deviate from any Part 91 rule to meet an in-flight emergency. Did the pilot who landed over the disabled Lancair suffer an in-flight emergency? What about the Ercoupe pilot?
In the first case, the only mitigating circumstance was a crowded traffic pattern due to a fly-in and an airshow. In the second case, we know the Ercoupe pilot and his CFI were concerned about their low fuel state.
Could they have gone to another airport? Perhaps. Bridgewater Air Park is only seven nautical miles from Shenandoah Valley Regional. Eagle’s Nest Airport is only 11 nm away.
So there isn’t a specific regulatory prohibition against landing on an occupied or closed runway. But the FAA can use CFR 91.111 and 91.13 to suspend or revoke a pilot’s license for doing so, if FAA officials interpret the pilot’s actions as reckless and an endangerment.
Does lack of consideration equal reckless endangerment?
Two planes landing over two other planes didn’t result in property damage or personal injury — this time. So arguably, the pilots’ aeronautical decision-making skills could be considered sound.
However, it’s arguable they were just lucky.
Regardless of which argument you think is correct, I think we can all agree that aviation is a lot like golf.
We are a community of people who are charged with policing ourselves to fill out our own logbooks accurately, to maintain our own proficiency, and to abide by a certain code of conduct that includes taking the safety of fellow pilots into consideration.
Two takeaways come from these two reports. The first is that at least two pilots did not deem it inconsiderate to land over two other pilots stranded on a runway.
The second is that consideration, and the lack of it, matter in a world as inherently dangerous as aviation.