In A Dead Run, Ahead Of The Storm

Lightning flashed and torrential rain blew in sheets as the 747-400 lined up for takeoff. Trying to get out ahead of a raging typhoon, the crew of the Singapore Airlines jet advanced the power levers and the massive airliner began its heavy roll down the runway. A passenger reported later that she “enjoyed night takeoffs” because she loved to “watch the runway edge lights speed by as the takeoff roll accelerated.” But she “didn’t see any lights this time; it was dark as (she) looked out (her) window while the plane raced down the runway.”

In their haste to take off ahead of the storm, in half-mile visibility and buffeted by 50-knot gusts of wind, the *highly* experienced crew had lined up on the wrong runway — one which was closed for repairs. The 747 struck the first concrete construction barrier about 4500 feet down the runway, just as the big jet rotated for takeoff in the monstrous wind. Nearly half of the people onboard died in the crash on the rainy, windy field. The pilots survived.

How could such a professional flight crew have made such a decision? What could have caused them to line up on a closed runway, one that reportedly was not lighted as the crew should have expected for an active runway?

What the Pilots Saw
Winds were mounting, visibility dropping. Yet, as the crew reportedly confirmed, conditions were still within the limits of the 747s operating manuals. In fact, one account suggests that if the wind had been a bit *stronger*, then the jet would have rotated sooner — and would have avoided the obstacles entirely. With the approaching storm, though, the crew undoubtedly felt pressure to take off on schedule–any delay would have meant canceling the flight altogether.

The closed runway was normally used as a taxiway, and was reportedly marked with green centerline lighting. By passenger account, the white runway edge lights were not on, so it would not have *looked* like the correct runway — or even a runway at all — from the cockpit. The crew may have been so rushed to get out ahead of the storm, however, that they saw what they “wanted” to see, and mistook the closed runway for their path away from the storm.

Tunnel Vision
Airline accident reporter and retried 747-400 captain Robert J. Boser calls this phenomenon “tunnel vision”– a pilot’s impaired perception under stress which causes him or her to mentally adjust what’s seen to what the pilot *expects* to see. Its the same phenomenon that causes a pilot to miss hearing a loud landing gear warning horn, to turn to the reciprocal of the desired heading and fly off in the wrong direction, or to line up on the wrong runway or even the wrong airport for landing.

Have you ever caught yourself missing an obvious cockpit indication? Can you remember ever convincing yourself that something on the ground was one location on the sectional chart, only to find later it was somewhere else entirely? Have you ever taken off into hazardous weather conditions, your decision the result of time pressure and not an objective look at conditions?

Tunnel vision can affect us all. Singapore Airlines had not suffered a single fatal accident since it began operations more than 15 years ago. The pilot of flight 006 had recent experience at the accident airport and more than 11,000 hours of flight time, most of it in heavy jets. How much does that matter now? Ask the survivors of Singapore 006, or the families of those whose lives ended on that stormy field.

BOTTOM LINE: If you feel yourself rushed into making a decision — whether your “storm” is weather, time pressure, or simply a desire to be somewhere other than where you are at the time — remember to use checklists, charts, lighting patterns, and common sense to be sure your decisions are made with logic and safety.