Torqued: Combating runway overruns

 - January 31, 2007, 9:15 AM

Ever feel like no matter what you do you just can’t win in the eyes of some
people? I’m not talking about the average aviation enthusiast. I’m talking about the editors and reporters of many of the nation’s news outlets. A number of aviation industry employees and organizations have worked hard to achieve an accident rate for Part 121 that is the lowest in history, but that is often unappreciated.

Aviation accidents–in fact, almost anything aviation-related that can be presented in a negative way–seem to sell in the media. Embedded within the Washington press corps are a group of reporters who understand aviation well and who are always looking for aviation-related stories. The low number of commercial accidents has forced them to shift their focus to business aircraft accidents and incidents.

Unfortunately, the spike in the number of business aviation accidents and incidents in the past few months has provided just the sort of material the reporters are looking for.

Recently the FAA held a conference with aircraft operators to discuss some of the issues surrounding several of these accidents in an attempt to draw attention from within our community to possible solutions. That continues to be a work in progress.
One area that I have long believed we could improve is runway overruns. This issue appeared on my radar screen after the overrun of a Boeing 737 in Burbank, Calif., in March 2000. The aircraft touched down at approximately 182 knots, and about 20 seconds later, traveling at approximately 32 knots, it collided with a blast fence and other obstructions. The lives of the 142 people on board were thus put in extreme risk.

I was a member of the NTSB at the time, and we were concerned about overruns then, as is the current Board. When this 737 accident occurred we did a search of other overruns and I was surprised to learn that, according to the NTSB database, 60 had occurred since 1982.

Remember, the trigger for recording is damage. So if the aircraft just got stuck in the mud with little damage as the result of an overrun, then the incident most likely would not be reported. It seems to me that I have heard of a number of reported runway overruns that do not appear in the database.

Maybe the press is reporting even the minor excursions and making a bigger deal out of them now that the spotlight is on the issue. I just don’t know.

A Dangerous Pattern
Some of the other aircraft overruns involving large aircraft show how close we have come to major disaster. In 1982 a DC-10 attempting to land in a snow/ice storm went off the end of the runway into the water around Boston Logan International Airport. The stress of the excursion separated the nose section aft of the nose landing gear, allowing the remaining portion of the aircraft to remain above the water line. The nose section settled into the water, and two passengers were never recovered.

The event that sends a shiver down my spine is an accident in Little Rock, Ark., in which an MD-80 overran the runway and broke into three pieces. The accident killed 11 passengers and injured 80 more.

These accidents have one thing in common: a runway safety area that is less than that currently required. They are allowed to continue operating under the revised rule since they were in operation before the rule change. The thinking is that the runway will be reconstructed at some point in the future and that it will be upgraded at that time. Well, some airports have a different thought on this matter.

A loophole allows any airport that does not use federal funds for the runway reconstruction to escape the current runway safety area requirements.

Airport Improvements
How big is this problem? According to an FAA publication titled Runway Safety Areas at Certificated Airports, 25 percent of our runways at Part 139 certified airports do not meet today’s standards but could with feasible improvements. According to this report, another 17 percent of the runways at Part 139 airports do not meet today’s standards and could not be made to meet those standards with feasible improvements.

Our industry needs to ensure that these runways are improved. I don’t know how many airports have made improvements in the 15 years since the standard was updated, but we need to convince business aviation airports to address this issue.

Some airports recognize the need for improvements and have taken steps in the right direction. Burbank, Calif., has installed an Engineered Material Arresting System [EMAS] to safely decelerate an aircraft traveling at up to 70 knots with little or no damage. The Port Authority of New York installed such a system some time ago at JFK Airport, and it has actually prevented major damage to three aircraft.

Since 1999 the FAA has been encouraging airports to make the necessary improvements and tied the upgrades to the use of Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding when used to resurface or otherwise improve runways. It is not clear how successful this effort has been.

Another simple change that could help would be to add to the airport charts information that an EMAS type system is installed on a runway so pilots would take the correct actions if they believed an overrun to be inevitable.

All of us in aviation need to start raising this subject with the airports we use. One of the things that separates aviation from other industries is the fact that we address our problems once they are discussed openly.