Turning base to final, I saw a Piper Cherokee sitting on the centerline at the arrival end of the runway. “Keep an eye on him,” I told my student as we rolled level onto final approach. “Be ready to go around if he doesn’t move soon.”
The Piper moved soon enough that we landed uneventfully. But delays on the runway at a nontowered airport can (and in this case did) create a potential conflict that, in a worst-case scenario, might have been deadly — all because the pilot “taxied into position” and held.
POSITION AND HOLD
The Pilot/Controller Glossary tells us the directive “Taxi into Position and Hold” is “used by ATC (Air Traffic Control) to inform a pilot to taxi onto the departure runway in takeoff position and hold. It is not authorization for takeoff. It is used when takeoff clearance cannot immediately be issued because of traffic or other reasons.”
Conditions: “Taxi into position and hold” exists only at airports with operating control towers. It’s allowed only when initiated and commanded by tower controllers. The purpose of this ATC tool is to expedite traffic flow-letting a pilot get ready to go before a landing aircraft completely clears the runway, or an aircraft that has just taken off moves far enough away to allow the next departure.
Inside Advice: If you’re given clearance into position to hold, don’t move onto the runway until you are ready for an immediate departure. Tell ATC you’ll continue to “hold short” if you’re not prepared. Have all pre-departure checklist items complete and be ready to roll prior to taking the runway — under any conditions.
Why: It’s quite possible you’re being moved into position so you can depart ahead of close-in, landing aircraft. The whole idea is to get you off the ground quickly — don’t throw a wrench into the works by needing extra time to get ready when that fast “cleared for takeoff” call comes.
P&H AT NON-TOWERED AIRPORTS
Can we use this traffic-expediting technique at non-towered airports? Well, no. At least, we shouldn’t. Remember, the whole idea of “position and hold” is to fit you between arriving and departing airplanes that are known distances from you, all orchestrated by a professional air traffic controller. At the local non-towered airfield, your own vision provides the only channel to assure that some no-radio Skyhopper hasn’t turned into he pattern, or a fast-burner Zipjet — still on Center frequency — isn’t inbound on the instrument approach course. Sitting in position on the runway, pointed down the runway centerline, you have a huge blind spot exactly where you need to be looking for traffic — behind, and above.
More Reasons to Hold Short: It’s sometimes difficult to pick out an airplane sitting on the runway when you’re on final approach. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Operations at Nontowered Airports Safety Advisor says the Foundation “does NOT recommend the practice of taking position on the runway and holding at nontowered airports to wait for other traffic to clear. There may be a delay, and you are in an extremely vulnerable position with no way of seeing traffic behind you.” White wings tend to blend in with runway numbers and some other markings — think about those old Wild Kingdom episodes that showed how effective black and white stripes camouflage zebras. It’s especially hard to see an in-position airplane in low-light or poor visibility conditions … all good reasons to avoid sitting in position on the runway.
STRATEGY — Tower-controlled Airports:
- Be ready to go — that’s without delay — before you call tower for departure clearance.
- Light up: Turn on strobes and any other lights once you cross the hold-short line, if told to taxi into position and hold.
Note: It’s standard airline procedure to delay turning on landing lights until actually cleared for takeoff, but if it’s dark or visibility is low, consider turning your landing lights on when you’re cleared onto the runway — especially if it’s just “into position and hold.” Chances are your “little airplane” will benefit from the added visibility of your landing lights reflecting off the pavement in front of you.
STRATEGY — NONtowered Airports:
- Don’t taxi onto the runway until you’re ready to apply power and depart. Have all your Before Takeoff checklist items complete before you taxi out, and don’t stop rolling. Apply power and go.
- Don’t taxi onto the runway if there’s another airplane completing its landing roll or a back-taxi. You’re not in so much of a hurry that you need to over-expose your blind spot to arriving traffic.
Note to Instructors: It’s tempting to want to get one last-minute student briefing in just before takeoff. Don’t fall into the trap of spending too much time in position on the runway before you depart. Show discipline — complete all your briefing items before taxiing onto the active runway.
STRATEGY — ALL Airports:
- Radio Calls: Make all appropriate calls. Announce your departure using standard phraseology from the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). This includes a readback of directives from ATC at towered airports.
- Scan for traffic before taking the active runway, even at towered airports. In the “olden days” pilots used to make a 360 degree taxi turn before moving onto the runway at uncontrolled airports; taxiway width, controlled-field complacency and plain laziness have made this practice almost extinct. It’s a good idea to employ the practice of looking inbound airplanes — radios and people malfunction. Sometimes there are no radios at all.
- Communicate: If your plans change, people will need to know because their plans may have to change as a result. If “something comes up” after you’ve taxied onto the runway at a nontowered airport, taxi off the runway to deal with your problem.
- Look for traffic on the runway — especially when landing. One of the reasons we fly an elaborate, visual traffic pattern is to check the runway for obstructions (and other airplanes). This is even more critical if you’re arriving straight-in out of an instrument approach in marginal weather conditions, and haven’t been released early enough to make an announcement on Unicom.
- Don’t “taxi into position and hold” unless you’re directed by a controller at a towered airport, and only then if you’re ready for an immediate departure.
- Don’t “taxi into position and hold” at all at nontowered airports.
- Do announce on the radio if for some reason you’ll be delayed on the runway, and taxi off quickly if your delay will last more than a few seconds.
- Always watch out for pilots who haven’t learned (1), (2) or (3) above.