I recently saw a near-collision on a runway, between a business jet and a corporate turboprop.
I was in the right seat of a Beechcraft Bonanza A36, instructing a pilot I’d first taught 25 years ago. To our right, on the ramp, the pilot of a Piaggio P180 Avanti was starting up. We taxied to the run-up pad. The Piaggio pilot, apparently alone in the aircraft, taxied past us and stopped just short of the end of the runway.
The weather was 1,100 overcast, visibility greater than 10 miles. Like most pilots departing Wichita/Colonel James Jabara airport that morning, we would call Clearance Delivery through a remote outlet on 125.0 to get our Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) clearance. At this non-towered airport, nestled in a cluster of airports in or near the busy Class C airspace, this clearance includes instructions to hold for release and contact Approach Control on 134.8 when ready to take off.
For pilots not familiar with this procedure, when you call for release the controller will determine whether there is other IFR traffic in the immediate area. If there is none, Air Traffic Control (ATC) will release the aircraft, i.e., permit you to depart on your IFR clearance. If there is other IFR traffic passing nearby or on the approach, ATC will not release you. You’ll need to wait on the ground, ready to go, while monitoring the Approach frequency until the controller calls back with your release after the traffic clears. Section 5-2-4 of the Aeronautical Information Manual describes the term this way:
HOLD FOR RELEASE: ATC may issue “hold for release” instructions in a clearance to delay an aircraft’s departure for traffic management reasons (i.e., weather, traffic volume, etc.). When ATC states in the clearance, “hold for release,” the pilot may not depart utilizing that instrument flight rules (IFR) clearance until a release time or additional instructions are issued by ATC. In addition, ATC will include departure delay information in conjunction with “hold for release” instructions. The ATC instruction, “hold for release,” applies to the IFR clearance and does not prevent the pilot from departing under visual flight rules (VFR). However, prior to takeoff the pilot should cancel the IFR flight plan and operate the transponder on the appropriate VFR code. An IFR clearance may not be available after departure.
The Avanti pilot was undoubtedly monitoring 134.8 awaiting release. My student switched to 125.0 to pick up our clearance, but we were still monitoring Unicom (122.7) as well. About then, the pilot of a Cessna Citation reported on Unicom that he was on a four-mile final. He had broken out of the overcast, shining a constellation of pulsing and fixed landing lights. The Citation pilot called at two miles out, and again when he was on a one-mile final.
The Citation jet was within a quarter-mile of the runway when the Piaggio pilot powered up and taxied onto the runway. I suspect he had received his departure release from ATC (on 134.8); he made no call on Unicom (122.7). The unique pusher turboprop aligned with the runway centerline and, without pause, began its takeoff roll. The Citation pilot had no choice but to execute a go-around, side-stepping to the left to avoid the Piaggio as the turboprop climbed.
My student and I taxied to just short of the runway and called for our release…still monitoring Unicom also. As we waited–the Citation came back around visually in a low circuit of the traffic pattern, and another IFR Bonanza was inbound on the approach–my student said, “I bet that Piaggio pilot feels bad about pulling out right in front of the jet.” I replied, “I bet the Piaggio pilot doesn’t have a clue the Citation was even there.”
The unique requirements of obtaining an IFR release at a nontowered airport create a communication challenge. Traffic detection and avoidance demand, however, that you make the effort. An IFR release requires you take off expeditiously, but that does not mean you can’t delay a few seconds to announce your departure before you take the runway. Further, you need to monitor the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF), 122.7 in this case, long enough before you announce your departure that you’ll hear any other pilots calling in…for example, a Citation pilot who has broken out high on the approach and cancelled his IFR clearance, permitting controllers to issue your release, or the pilot of a VFR airplane legally entering the pattern beneath the clouds in the Class G airspace.
“Shouldn’t the controller have advised the Piaggio pilot about the Citation on final approach, when the controller gave the Piaggio pilot his release?” you might ask. Yes, but recall that even between two IFR airplanes traffic advisories need only be provided on a time-available basis. It was pretty busy over Wichita that morning, and the controller may not have had time to issue a traffic advisory. Regardless of whether a traffic callout if given, controllers will make sure two IFR airplanes or an IFR airplane and a VFR airplane participating in radar services are kept separated from one another. However, since the Citation was no longer an IFR airplane and was no longer participating in ATC services, and since, by virtue of having cancelled his IFR clearance in the air, the Citation pilot was signifying that conditions were visual in the pattern over Jabara, visual “see and avoid” becomes the separation standard. The controller was not required to warn the Piaggio pilot of visual traffic on the approach, and even if he did it was assumed the pilots would see and avoid each other.
Even more importantly, you need to visually clear the runway and the airspace before “taking the active.” Not all airplanes have radios; pilots sometimes transmit on the wrong frequency or don’t transmit at all. And workload may cause you to miss a transmission while receiving and reading back your own clearance. IFR or VFR, towered or nontowered airport, you must visually confirm it’s safe to take the runway before you cross the Hold Short line (where one exists) or enter the runway.
How do I do it?
After completing my Before Takeoff checklist and departure briefing, and receiving my “Line up and Wait” or “Cleared for Takeoff” clearance, if at a tower-controlled airport, just before I enter the runway I voice aloud as I visually check:
The runway is clear
The approach is clear
I’m clear to go
Some might make the argument that there was no hazard, that the pilot of the Citation jet simply executed a balked landing and a visual pattern to land when he or she noticed an obstruction on the runway (the Piaggio). For many years, however, the Federal Aviation Administration has warned of the extreme hazard of runway incursions, such as this event. Yes, a go-around should be an expected, normal and easily-flown maneuver for the proficient pilot. That does not excuse another pilot for failing to clear the runway and the approach airspace before taxiing out, however, and creating the requirement for another aircraft to go around at the last moment to avoid a collision. We all have a responsibility to look for traffic before we take the runway, listen for what may be heard on the CTAF, and report our position and intentions in the airport environment, to avoid a runway incursion collision. Never assume it’s clear, just because you’re cleared.