Staying Ahead Of The Airplane (Don’t look past the obvious)

It seems that the most obvious thing can become elusive when you don’t concentrate on the details. A pilot and controller together looked past the obvious and almost caused a tragedy in Charlotte, North Carolina, one night.

It is rare when we have the opportunity to see inside the mind of a pilot and controller pertaining to the same event, but in this case both the pilot and controller filed a NASA form after what was a very close call:

The pilot’s side of the story: NASA Number 410622

Upon taxiing out from Charlotte, North Carolina, I picked up my IFR clearance from the tower and taxi instructions. The controller told me to taxi to runway 18L at intersection Alpha, which I did. The controller cleared me for takeoff from runway 18L at intersection Alpha and to fly a heading of 210 degrees, which I did. Later I was informed by the Charlotte approach control by telephone that runway 18L had been closed, and that I came close to hitting a vehicle that was on the runway.

The controller’s side of the story: NASA Number 410925

Airport operations closed runway 18L for maintenance. I turned off the runway lights and put the closure on the ATIS. Twenty minutes later I (working alone in the tower) taxied an aircraft to the closed runway and issued a takeoff clearance forgetting that the runway was closed. The aircraft departed over vehicles on the runway. Factors to include:

  1. Airport operations – when closing a runway and having vehicles operate on the runway, should have better illuminated vehicles.
  2. Pilot – the pilot did not listen to the ATIS or question why the runway lights were turned off. He also did not see the vehicle.
  3. FAA – although the FAA knows runway incursions to be a problem they had no memory aids to alert the controller that the runway was closed.

This ground near-miss could easily have been a fatal accident for the pilot and the vehicle operator and there are plenty of questions that could be asked. Why would a pilot takeoff from a Class B airport like Charlotte at night without runway lights? That should have been very suspicious. The controller seemed to blame a lack of vehicle lights, the pilot, and lack of memory aids instead of himself.

As pilots we should remember this story whenever something does seem right. Never be afraid to ask the controller about something you are not sure of. “Hey are the runway lights on 18L inoperative tonight?” If the pilot had asked that obvious question, the threat would have been eliminated and everyone’s awareness restored.

The Bottom Line: There are no stupid questions. If something does not look right, smell right, or feel right – its probably not right. Don’t look past the obvious.