Isn’t taxiing the “easy part” of being a suntanned gravity-defying winged god—I mean, pilot? One would think that taxiing an aircraft would be much, much easier than flying one. But I hypoxisize that one would be much, much wrong.
A non-pilot (a “ground-pounder”) might think, “Taxiing an aeroplane must be easy! You have your really easy-to-read signs, just like on streets, right? Otherwise taxiing an aeroplane would be, uh, like, totally dangerous and difficult, right?” Right you are, ground-pounder, taxiing can be both, “D and D.” For example, the tower people like to call you as soon as possible after you land, four seconds after the wheels hit the ground (after the mains hit the ground for the first time, in a crow-hop landing). I wouldn’t be surprised if they called me in the flare sometime. “Citation 246GF, where are you parking?” is just a super call to get at about 83 knots groundspeed, the buckets still out.
I offer this gem of a taxi-instruction call, from a chipper tower controller the other day. Just after we landed at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Runway 9. (sidenote: notice how close the airport identifier, KCID, is to “acid?” Coincidence? Discuss.) “Citation 246GF, turn left on Runway 13, right on Alpha, left on Echo, right on Echo Two to parking with me.” We were the only aircraft moving at the airport. The the call sounded like:
He spoke at eighteen knots, gusting to thirty, is what I’m saying, and the aircraft was only demonstrated to twenty-three knots of crosswind. Now, to be fair, he may be a part-time auctioneer, or maybe there was a squadron of airplanes coming in from behind us, unbeknownst to us, and he wanted us off the runway. Or maybe he was on acid, with an FAA medical waiver. Anyhoo, his radio call made all the circuit breakers pop in my head—click, click, click! (all three)— and, slowing the aircraft to a moderate 147 knots, I said to pilot-partner, “Dang, I didn’t get that, did you?”
What’s that you say, dear reader? Oh, why thank you—I didn’t even think of pre-studying the airport diagram, and having it open on my iPad eight inches from my face, bathing my handsome rugged pilot features in a bluish glow. (I wear a Harrison Ford mask when flying, as all the pros do.)
Like expletive deleted, I didn’t—I was staring right AT it, bug-eyed and buffaloed. I looked at the pilot next to me, who turned and looked out the window, then at the floor, then tapped on a gauge, pretending to be busy. I deduced from his actions that he had November Charlie (no clue) (His “I’m busy, here, it’s your job to get the radios” ruse would have been more believable if he had not tapped on a glass panel gauge. This is CRM.) Thinking quickly, I realized I had to query the tower dude. To sound good, I. keyed the mic and said professionally, “Huh?”
The tower guy said it all again, just as fast (to show off his facial muscle movement to his co-worker, maybe) and this time I got it, repeated it back correctly. Then the tower guy laughed, like what he had just power-blurted twice was a super-easy-to-understand string of syllables: “Ha ha, yeah, it’s just a left—right—left—right, ha ha!” Oh yes, ha ha, chortle-boy. (Full disclosure, the next time we landed there, the tower guy spoke slower, and clearly—and I still dorked-up the read back, even though I knew exactly what he said. Sigh.)
Notice how there sometimes aren’t really excellent sign locations at an airport? Like sometimes, the taxiway signs are sometimes so far apart that after you pass one sign and turn a corner, the next one telling you that you are on the correct taxiway (the “non-violated taxiway”) is so far ahead you can’t see it without taxiing a long way? And you forgot your telescope?
Airport construction worker: “This is as good a spot as any for Taxiway A3 sign, Jim. Let’s break for lunch.”
It’s like you’re given taxi instructions, the radio frequency afterwards goes dead quiet, and they watch you from the tower to see if you make it. Take the airport KANE, otherwise known as Janes Field, or Anoka County, or Blaine, (or secretly, to me, “this infernal airport.”) The FBO, Atlantic Aviation, is on Taxiway C2, right next to C1, and then you have your A3, not to be confused with A4, parallel right next to it, and down (or up) in the corner, lurking, is Taxiway A.
My instructor asked me: “Now from where we sit, where is the intersection of A3 and C1?” I pointed exactly the wrong way, and he said “A lot of pilots get turned around out here, and enter the wrong taxiway at that intersection.” Interesting. It’s because of the layout and the signage or lack of. We pilots can follow taxi instructions, but, in the case of Anoka County Blaine Janes Field (whew!), it’s super easy to make a wrong turn, he said, and pilots do it all the time.
Sometimes a taxiway sign will be located before the taxiway (you turn after the sign), sometimes abeam it (turn at the sign), like at Fargo’s airport, (which, by the way, is totally international, it’s right there in the title “Hector International.”) Worse than Fargo’s KFAR is the Martinsburg, Eastern West Virginia Regional/Shepherd Field, KMRB. (What, do the people who name airports just speak names until they run out of breath?) The hold short line for Runway 26 is way, way back on a parallel Taxiway A. Yup, you’re supposed to hold short before coming anywhere near turning perpendictular toward the runway, like, let’s see, every other airport you’ve ever been at, ever.
Let’s look at the Chart Supplement (formerly the Airport/Facility Directory, or “A/FD” as ForeFlight still calls it because, why not call it that?). Does it explain the tricky hold-short line located out in East Egypt on Taxiway Alpha? No, it does not, but helpfully says, in AIRPORT REMARKS: “No grass landings.” I suppose it’s implied “No taxiing on the grass, either.”
Did I mention that the miserable hold short line for Runway 26 is faded and almost invisible? Well, it is, and why? Obviously because there is no more paint left in the world, is why. So the KMRB tower people just wait, watching you with their high-powered mil-spec binoculars until you (“I”) taxi across the hold short line without clearance, then snort over the radio: “You just crossed the hold line for Runway 26. Snort.” Then they high-five each other, and check to see who won the “tower office pool.” But Martinsburg tower doesn’t hammer you— which is to say violate you—they had their fun with your (my) hold-line crossing, and are busy betting on the next pilot to cross the faded-out hold line on the parallel taxiway without clearance.
At least airport signage is mostly all equally bad, so we pilots can have low expectations and not be surprised so much. Signs are all on the same level (the ground), are often small and, this is nice, sometimes have burned-out lights that you don’t know about because you missed that NOTAM, didn’t you, (and by “you” I mean “me” already.)
NOTAM: “OKV TAXIWAY B3 LIGHT OUT OF SERVICE OKV 03/001
Effective: Oct 10, 08:00 CST (just before you taxi)
Expires: NEVER EVER
We pilots don’t miss overhead signs, or ones that are eye-level but safely off to the side, out of wing-scrape distance. It’s a shame that there are so very few (zero) of these. Some signs are painted right on the taxiways and runways. This is apparently to save money on sign posts, and metal plate signs with reflective paint (because of the metal shortage?).
I saw old article in AVweb magazine dated October 11th, 2010 titled: “FAA: Runway Incursions Down By Half”. The article says there were only six “serious” (versus humorous) runway incursions in 2010 versus twelve in 2009. In 2022, some twelve years later—there were 1732, according to the FAA. Gasp. And more than 700 so far this year, 2023.
Here’s an FAA post you’d think was from the “early days” of aviation, like 1952—except it’s not, it’s only a year or so old:
“Currently, there is no standard shape to designate a hot spot on airport diagrams within chart supplements and the Terminal Procedures Publication; they are charted with a variety of squares, rectangles, circles, ovals, and ellipses with no pattern or consistency.”
The post goes on to say “Beginning May 19, 2022, the FAA will standardize these symbols to three shapes with two distinct meanings: a circle or ellipse for ground movement hot spots and a cylinder for wrong surface hot spots.”
Here’s a job the FAA is working on now, called “Runway Incursion Mitigation. Of course they have an acronym for this job: “RIM.” (Ahem.) The FAA writes they have developed a database of “approximately 520 airports with civilian air traffic control towers,” and goes on to say there were tons of runway incursions (RI) in the year 2022. (They measure in “short tons” for short planes.)
In their “Problematic Taxiway Geometry Study Overview,” (“PTG Report”), the FAA developed a database of 6098 airport locations with nonstandard geometry, also known as problematic taxiway geometry (PTG) locations. They list nineteen different things that lead to pilot confusion. I plucked out four from their list:
- Nonstandard markings and/or signage placement
- Use of a runway as a taxiway
- Unexpected holding position marking on parallel/entrance taxiway
- Greater than three-path taxiway intersection
If taxiing was “easy,” would there even be “hotspots?” You look at some airport diagrams and think—they should just draw a “hotspot circle” around the whole thing.
Airport diagrams—a person could look at them sitting in a chair at home and think “How could a person ever dork up taxiing from parking to the runway, or from a runway to parking? It looks simple.” Yeah, from your chair at home. It’s apparently not all that hard to make a “taxi mistake,” because it’s happening daily. Especially nightly.
We pilots, even though it’s the year 2023 and we have iPads, have to do more than get a taxi clearance, jot down some shorthand notes, glance at the airport layout, push up the throttles and start taxiing, and assume the taxiway signs and markings will be obvious—oh, it’ll all be obvious, no prob. Everything is obvious–until it ain’t–and then a pilot can suddenly find themselves in a big patch of concrete with no signs, a vast wasteland of concrete, the size of a Walmart parking lot (without the big blue building nearby,) and you’re supposed to know which way to go—because you did copy down the taxi clearance, right? Yes, yes, of course. But still….where the heck is Taxiway E2?
My oh-so-patient instructor at KANE (Anoka, MN) recently (last week) told me to really think—visualize the different possible taxi routes the controller might give me, when there is time to think–like before starting descent into the airport, or before calling for taxi clearance from parking. Take KMIA. Please.
At Miami International, where Taxiway Q meets Taxiway M, there is a strange triangle shape with dashed lines around it there on the Jeppson taxi diagram. And a Hotspot circle. And a large dashed square, around the whole Hotspot circle, which circles approximately one hundred and fifty taxiways. Look at that mishmash: Taxiways R1, Q1, Q, N, M, M1, L1, for heaven’s sake, and then you have your Runway 12, and 8R barging in, too, demanding equal play. (Runway 8L is sulking, off to the side, the “Rudolph” of the “Runway Games.”)
An aggregation—a “gob,” a “goat rope,” a “dog’s breakfast, even—of taxiways and runways, all meeting together, with a solid triangle inside a dashed triangle inside a Hotspot circle inside a dashed-line square, inside a riddle, wrapped in an onion. It’s the Russians! I knew it! Or is it that 5G interference I keep hearing about?
So the FAA is throwing $6 Million at that little Bermuda Triangle. Many pilots have disappeared there over the years, turning up at—yes—the Miami Walmart parking lot, fourteen miles away. What that airport layout looks like is someone got tired of drawing, and said “Oh, the pilots will figure it out. After all, there’s a big piece of concrete, plenty o’ room. See and avoid.” The FAA’s Associate Administrator of Airports, Shanetta R. Griffin, said “Some airports have complex layouts that can create confusion for pilots…”
Ms. Griffin, with all due respect, may I say “D’ya think?”
In my case, I notice if I don’t really pay attention, I can get turned around on an super-simple airport with, simple taxiways. Like at Devils Lake, North Dakota, KDVL, for example, where you might have to rev up the prop to chase off a coyote to get to the gas pump (of course use 1800 RPM, like the POH says.) Question: Land on Runway 3, and uhhh, where’s that turn-off? Answer: In your imagination.
Full disclosure: I bet I could make a wrong turn coming out of my driveway on a bad day
Fuller disclosure: I don’t have a driveway.
Sigh. I wish taxiing was as easy as flying an ILS down to minimums in a crosswind at night—which of course the autopilot does for me.