by Kevin R. Dingman
Instead of waiting for the jump seat on a succession of full regional jets general aviation, I sometimes drive part way to O’Hare, then ride a charter-type bus to ORD. It makes the trip a lot longer, but knowing that I’ll get there for sure, instead of waiting for the next available seat – often as much as five hours – or even not getting a seat at all, is a nice respite from the agony of commuting. While on the bus I can nap, eat, read or work on stories. Occasionally, I watch folks bump heads.
Every now-and-then, the bus driver will apply the brakes a bit more than normal and passengers will lean into the aisle and bump heads with the person across the aisle who’s doing the same thing. They all look toward the front, rubbing their heads as they try to figure out what’s going on. It’s the reaction to a sudden deceleration, turning force or jolting, because, even as a passenger, if we don’t do something quickly, we will hit something…or so we think. Sometimes we look around for the culprit, reach for controls like the brakes or steering wheel, or we may just grab onto something and squeeze. For the cabin crew or passengers on our airplanes, the ability to see out the front, hit the brakes or grab something may not exist.
“Spots” are literally big round painted circles on the ramp; with a number inside. We use them at the major airports to coordinate arriving and departing airliners. After engine start, ramp control had instructed us to use either of spots 6, 7 or 9…at my discretion. I taxied the polished MD-80 to spot 9, short of taxiway Kilo, came to a smooth stop, and set the parking brake. Normal procedure is to switch to ground control when approaching the assigned spot and wait. You don’t call them, they call you – lest you be chastised and made to wait longer; radome and main landing gear dangling from the medieval stocks for all the village to see. Ground soon called with the query: “Spot 10?” There are 50-some spots on this side of the field alone, all of them spaced just 40 yards apart. We were at spot 9 and there was no one at spot 10 but it’s common for ground control to get the spot number wrong by one spot. My FO responded with “319 is spot 9 with India.” Ground responded: “Roger 319. Taxi to 17R via Kilo-Echo-Golf. India is current.” My FO read back “17R, Kilo-Echo-Golf, we have India. 319.”
About the time our fuselage was one-half airplane length over the ramp line out onto taxiway Kilo, ground came over the radio with the query: “Spot 9?” – which was me. I felt an unpleasant scenario unfolding, as the “incursion” word flashed through my mind, and it caught me by surprise. Even if ground had made the mistake, if we pull in front of another taxiing airplane, ground vehicle or other equipment, it’s ultimately the PIC’s responsibility – and that’s me again. I instinctively tapped the brakes; not enough to stop, but it was jarring. I knew my flight attendants were up and about in the cabin and I pictured the passengers doing the head-bumping thing, like on the bus. I looked for traffic and vehicles; there was nothing from either direction and I wondered what I had missed.
No Soup For You!
My FO was verbally reviewing the takeoff data so I took the radio via boom mike and said “Spot 9 was 319 – You gave us the Keg route.“ Ground replied: “Ok, sorry. I confused you with another flight number – no problem.“ I responded with – “Ok, thanks, but I need to pick my Flight Attendants up off the floor.” Ground replied: “Sorry about that.” My thoughts went from concern of having made a mistake, to being relieved, but mad at myself for tapping the brakes. I expected a punitive call on the intercom from my jostled FA’s, perhaps revoking my crew meal for that leg, but it never came.
About 55 minutes into the flight, as an aside to another conversation I was having with my number one flight attendant, he mentioned “by the way, ‘that little brake thing’ back there on the ramp injured the wrist of the #4 FA as she reached for a passenger seat for stabilization.” I explained the above chain of events to both of them and recommended we all file the appropriate paperwork for her IOD (injury on duty), so as to document the event for the managers, health insurance company and bean-counters. She applied an ice pack for some of the flight and apparently, all is well since that day.
There used to be a sentence in the AIM that said: “…shall taxi no faster than a man can walk.” Probably a hold-over from when we used wing-walkers regularly and it was a method of regulating taxiing airplanes to a reasonable pace for our pedestrian assistants. A few years ago, that line in the AIM was removed. Except at fly-ins, no one uses wing walkers anyway, and no one taxis that slowly, so the guideline lost most of its relevance in today’s mostly paved-surface aviation world. It’s still a good idea however, to taxi within the speed limit of your brain, ground conditions including day/night/weather considerations, traffic and familiarity with the airport.
Write It Down
Don’t let airfield familiarity bite you, though. Sometimes we hear what we expect to hear and not what was actually said. We become accustomed to taxiing the same old route to and from certain places and that may not be the clearance we were issued – this time. It’s standard procedure for me to write down taxi instructions because I can’t remember more than three or four pieces of information at a time and I certainly don’t want to get it wrong. I started using this technique at the big airports because the list of taxiways, hold shorts, and the “do this when you get to here and there”, can be extensive. Now, everywhere I go, even smaller GA airports, I jot down the taxi clearance, just as I do the enroute clearance. When
I forget to write it, I get bitten.
The airport diagram, and sometimes an approach chart, will often seem like one of those picture-puzzles where you look for a hidden object that doesn’t belong, like a tennis racket growing from the flower garden. Almost every airport diagram depicts at least one or two “Hot Spots.” They show up as a red circle or an oblong circle around areas in which we pilots have repeatedly done something we shouldn’t have. Typically, they’re at the intersection of a taxiway and a runway where, for whatever reason, we get confused or distracted and make a wrong turn or don’t stop at the hold-short line. It’s not always our fault, though. On the way to the hangar, ground once cleared me to cross the approach end of a runway. My jotted-down note said “clr to X-5” (cleared to cross runway 05). At the hold short line I told ground that I was going to stop here for a second. My habit is to look, and verbally (even when solo) confirm that “final is clear.” When he had cleared me to cross, there was an airplane on ¼ mile final to this runway. Ground figured it out and said thanks. And sometimes, two taxiing airplanes may not be able to fit on adjacent taxiways at the same time because of wingtip clearances – even though both were cleared to taxi. Often the note that mentions this fact is a small “ball note” cleverly concealed somewhere on the airport diagram page, usually near that tennis racket. This is also true for hidden notes that say: ‘Stop here before proceeding’, ‘Contact tower right here’, and the one that says ‘Your zipper is down’ –
I hate that one.
It’s A Gusher
While not as common in GA, at the airlines we bump, and are bumped by, vehicles, ground equipment and other aircraft more occasionally than you might think. The ramps and taxiways often look like the sidewalks of Manhattan during lunch hour: catering and fuel trucks, baggage carts, tow tugs, FedEx, UPS, USPS and Brinks trucks alongside multiple automobiles – all competing for space on the field. They’re all in a big hurry, they’re all texting while driving and they’re all moving faster than a man can walk. If something hard like these vehicles or objects hits your airplane, even if it’s a gentle bump, you may not leak fuel or other fluids, but reports to the FAA may be required and money will gush from the impact area. Review the airport diagram picture-puzzle before you begin movement on the field or you may not see a hot spot or that tennis racket in the flower bed, or you may get caught with your zipper down. If any of these things happen, you will instinctively tap the brakes and head bumping will ensue.
Kevin Dingman has been flying for 40 years. He’s an ATP typed in the B737 and DC9 with 20,000 hours. A retired Air Force Major, he flew the F-16 then performed as a USAF Civil Air Patrol Liaison Officer. He flies volunteer missions for the Christian organization Wings of Mercy, is employed by a major airline, and owns and operates a Beechcraft Duke. Contact Kevin at Dinger10d@gmail.com.