Dilemma: (n., C.) a position or situation giving two possible outcomes, neither pleasant.

Hello dear readers,

Do you remember when in our very first article, The Holding Point Conundrum, I was telling you a story about a runway incursion? Since then, weeks and weeks have gone by and I’ve had the pleasure to take you across a whole bunch of stories in the life of people, mostly pilots.

Well, today, I would like to examine another story that revolves around a runway incursion, but with a slightly different point of focus.

I was working the tower position that morning, and everything was very calm, in spite of fair weather and the fact that it was Saturday morning. Not a lot of aircraft were up flying, and because of the relative quietness, we were, my colleague and I, busier handling small routine administrative tasks than actually working with aircraft. Actually, it was so quiet that I had just “given” the runway to the airport electricians, who needed to replace a light bulb in one of the centerline pods. It’s not that it’s something particularly long, it usually lasts only about 10 minutes, but to be honest, not having any movement on the runway for 10 minutes was particularly rare. On top of that. It was easier for the guys to get that job done during the day, no need for extra night work, so I went for it.

About 5 minutes into the intervention, my colleague who was working at the ground sector told me that a light aircraft had just started up for solo touch-and-goes, but by the time he would actually be ready for departure, it would still give the electricians plenty of time to finish up their work, seal up the light pod and go back to the workshop.

And indeed, when the solo student reached the holding point, the electricians were just about finished, wrapping things up, and the last man was walking back to the maintenance pickup truck.

ACFT: “Tower, OOABC Solo, holding runway 25, ready for departure”

TWR: “OOABC Solo, Tower, good morning, hold short runway 25, maintenance works in progress on the runway”

ACFT: “Holding short runway 25, OOABC”

Perfect. Nothing is easier or clearer. And by that time, I was looking at the electricians closing up their truck and starting to drive, but, when I quickly glanced at the aircraft, I was very surprised to see it not only on the runway, but accelerating for take-off!

TWR: “OOABC, Stop, stop immediately, vehicle on the runway!”

The pilot fortunately reacted immediately and managed to stop his aircraft within a reasonable distance, while I was advising the truck of the problem. It was not very beautiful to see, and to be honest, I still think about that situation from time to time.

Ok, it is a textbook runway incursion, nothing exceptional. We can call it an honest mistake, I had a chance to listen to the recordings immediately, and even met the student pilot, who, on top of being very sorry for the mishap, felt uncomfortable about what had happened, to say the least.

But then, what I wanted to talk about today, dear readers, is more targeted at my fellow air traffic controllers, but everybody will, I reckon, understand my point. When lining up, the pilot had a take-off run available slightly over 1800 meters/5900 feet. The maintenance truck was about 1500 meters away, almost at the opposite end of the runway. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I did the right thing interrupting the departure: a Cessna 150 takes off in about 600 meters, I would estimate. And by stopping the take-off run, I think the pilot actually took a much longer distance, instead of just continuing the flight and simply overflying the truck.

But here comes the tricky part: whether I stopped the take-off or not, this is a very serious incident. Critical runway safety was compromised. What would it look like if I had thought it through, decided not to interrupt the take-off roll, and relied on the fact that it would actually be less dangerous to everyone? What would I write in the incident report? How could I justify that I simply let it happen, let alone prove that I actually saw it happening? It’s very easy to assume, in a situation like this, that people do not react because they didn’t notice the incident and then took the high road, saying, “of course I saw it”.

But the truth is never that simple. To be honest with you, my reaction was an automatic one. I saw somebody taking off without clearance on a blocked runway, I did not think any further and intervened immediately. I did not give a single thought to anything else.

In the end, of course, all is well that ended well. Everybody went home safe, and no problems came to anyone. I was even commended by my supervisor. But as you can see, there can be many “hidden” aspects to an incident, and this particular one reminded me one thing: we are but human beings, and as careful as we are, even in the most protected environment, with safety systems all around, we still have automatic reactions, and it is good to remember that once in a while.

Have safe flights and safe shifts, wherever you are, and see you next week!