With night IFR conditions prevailing, the light jet was cleared for the ILS approach to Runway 19. There were multiple snow showers the area, and the pilot queried the tower about the runway condition and braking action. Tower reported back that a Cessna 210 Centurion had landed a few minutes prior and reported conditions “moderate” and “fair.” In fact, the Centurion pilot did not use brakes at all during his landing on the 7,000-foot grooved runway covered in a half-inch of wet snow.
The jet crew calculated the landing distance and determined they would have more than 2,500 feet of margin. They elected to continue. Following the approach and landing, the crew applied brakes aggressively, but the light jet slid off the departure end of the runway and impacted terrain. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the plane was substantially damaged.
According to the NTSB, about one-third of all landing accidents are runway excursions, with varying degrees of severity. Worldwide, there are about two per week. While most are survivable, runway contamination is often a major or contributing factor, as illustrated in the accident above. Some are more high profile: You may recall then-Gov. Mike Pence’s Boeing 737 slid off the runway at La Guardia, New York last October. Runway contamination and adverse weather conditions can quickly change a happy ending to a scary one.
Starting on October 1, the FAA began using a new runway condition reporting system. The FAA developed the standards with a task force that was formed after the December 2005 overrun accident at Chicago Midway Airport. In that accident, Southwest Flight 1248 ran off the end of the runway and into a city street after landing during a snowstorm. The new method requires airport operators to use the Runway Condition Assessment Matrix (RCAM) to categorize runway conditions and pilots will use it to interpret reported runway conditions.
Runway Condition Assessment Matrix
How is this new rating system manifested? As an example, a NOTAM with runway contamination reads like this:
DEN RWY 17R FICON (5/5/3) 25 PRCT 1⁄8 IN DRY SN, 25 PRCT 1⁄8 IN DRY SN, 50 PRCT 2 IN DRY SN OBSERVED AT 1601010139.
The FICON (field conditions) provides a runway condition code of 5 for the first and second thirds of the runway, and a 3 rating for the last third. If the same condition exists over the entire surface, only one code is given. The pilot would then consult the aircraft manufacturer data to determine what kind of stopping performance to expect from the specific airplane they are operating.
Pilot braking action reports will continue to be used to assess braking performance. However, the terminology “Fair” will be replaced by “Medium.” Also, it will no longer be acceptable for an airport to report a NIL braking action condition. NIL conditions on any surface require the closure of that surface. These surfaces will not be opened until the airport operator is satisfied that the NIL braking condition no longer exists.
Hopefully, this simplified method of communicating runway conditions, as well as the elimination of vague terminology, will help pilots make better informed landing decisions well before the wheels touch the pavement.