Luckily for my passengers, aircraft and me, the only times I’ve experienced a runway excursion have been during training. On each occasion, the results were predictable, even in the most sophisticated aircraft simulator. A loss of directional control sends the aircraft sliding across shamrock-green video scenery and careening harmlessly through runway lights and signs, trees and anything else in the way. The video display above the instrument panel turns red as the instructor reminds me that I just performed a maneuver that will surely land me in the hospital if it happens in the real world. Down deep, no matter how much I try to concentrate, though, I know it’s all pretend.
Losing directional control on the runway during takeoff or landing in an airplane, however, is no laughing matter. Boeing lists loss of control on the ground as the central cause of more than three dozen aircraft accidents in the last decade. A recent FlightSafety International manual also reported 43 percent of all runway excursion accidents occurred during VMC, when crews should have had sufficient visibility to see the problem coming.
The majority of landing accidents involve hard landings, leaving the side or going off the end of a wet or icy runway or after a brake/ antiskid failure. Runway excursions often involve a landing-gear collapse related directly to a rejected takeoff past V1, improper calculation of landing distance, excessive airspeed or touching down well beyond the touchdown zone. Poor response to rejected takeoff issues, in fact, is the number-one cause of takeoff accidents.
However, running an aircraft off the end of the runway is the result, not the cause, of an aircraft accident. In 50 to 75 percent of the cases, the reason for running an aircraft off the end of a runway is simply poor judgment on the part of the cockpit crew. The most common thread in runway excursions, then, is the pilot’s incorrect action, inaction, or poor troubleshooting and decision-making skills. The short time frame available for the crew to recognize and react to situations on the ground only adds to the overall chaos.
In one takeoff accident, the aircraft began to drift right soon after the crew added takeoff thrust. The copilot was flying and added left rudder to correct while the captain looked on. By the time the airplane reached the marker indicating that 4,000 feet remained, the jet was nearly off the edge of the runway, and the pilots decided to abort the takeoff. Well past decision speed, the aircraft was unable to stop before running out of concrete and came to rest in the water off the departure end.
The question is not why the left rudder was ineffective, but why the crew continued the takeoff in the face of a control issue so obvious early on during the ground run, in complete disregard of the briefing they had exchanged only moments before.
In another accident, the crew of a Gulfstream IV lost directional control in a strong crosswind early in the takeoff, well below V1. The two pilots continued the takeoff run while arguing about how best to handle the situation. The aircraft continued to accelerate and left the runway, shearing off the landing gear, clipping a small drainage ditch and crashing just off the end of the runway. At no point during the takeoff did the pilots attempt to stop the aircraft. The lone passenger and three crewmembers died in the ensuing fire.
In a landing accident, a small business jet slid off the end of a 5,000-foot runway after landing well past the touchdown point. No one was hurt. The last 60 seconds
of the conversation on the cockpit voice recorder features the copilot telling the captain he is too high and nearly 25 knots above Vref speed on short final. The captain later said he believed the approach was salvageable.
‘Off Runway Crash Enable’ Button
Think a runway excursion can’t happen to you? FlightSafety International thinks it can and recently introduced a software upgrade to its Vital 8 and Vital 9 simulators to increase awareness of the risks during takeoff and landing and emphasize the consequences of poor judgment.
The instructor switch that activates FSI’s new Runway Judgment Training module is aptly called the “off-runway crash enable” button and allows the instructor to engage
a variety of new simulator experiences that replicate an off-runway excursion more accurately than previous simulator experiences. The system allows the instructor to make a runway shorter or narrower at will, and to select a variety of surfaces from wet or dry asphalt, to concrete, dry sand and even grass.
Derek Maeer, general manager of FSI’s simulation systems division in Broken Arrow, Okla., said, “The new runway judgment training module is soon to be added to most of the company’s 200-plus simulators.” At press time, the only two Vital-equipped machines using the new software were a Challenger 300 simulator in Dallas and a Citation CJ2 in Wichita.
“One of the big issues we faced during development,” Maeer added, “was [deciding] exactly what we wanted to see happen if pilots ran off the runway. Did we want to just rattle them a bit or make them feel terribly guilty? That is very subjective. We decided to show them what happens if they get careless while making it rough enough that they would pay attention. Of course, all the roughness is based upon what we think it feels like since we really don’t have any data in this area.”
In the accidents mentioned, each of the crews violated the landing or takeoff briefings they’d discussed only moments before each accident. Did complacency or cockiness cause so many professional pilots to ignore their own advice? Why brief at all if no one is going to follow the procedures? The purpose of the briefing is to accelerate decision-making during a critical phase of flight.
For example, pilots know that should anything unusual occur below 80 knots, they must abort the takeoff, period. Between 80 knots and V1, takeoff is rejected only for an engine failure, fire or directional control problem. But if these problems occur, the crews will abort the takeoff.
Judgment: Innate or Learned?
One of the problems inherent in decision-making is that “objective” decisions are just so, well…subjective sometimes. The good judgment many older pilots display is often the result of having done some stupid things in their careers, but nothing so serious that it cost them their lives.
Full-motion simulators are widely used today because they show pilots cause and effect. For example, pilots who fly an ILS approach using large control inputs will quickly overwhelm their ability to keep the needles centered. Next time, they won’t do that and muscle memory will deliver a better approach.
Judgment, however, is something else entirely. Bad judgment includes when a pilot continues inbound despite a “poor” braking action advisory or a wind shear advisory on a two-mile final or passes on a wake turbulence time interval.
There are two prevailing attitudes about judgment. One school of thought says either you have common sense within your grasp from your first flying lesson or you never will.
The other concept is that enough classroom training can teach a pilot how to make good decisions. Larry Schuman, director of specialty training at FlightSafety International’s Dallas/Fort Worth center and one of the chief proponents behind the organization’s new runway judgment training effort, says FSI believes an instructor is capable only of presenting situations to students and helping them successfully navigate the problem-analysis grid. “What they do with the information once they complete that thought process is up to them.”
In addition to the new software, FSI developed a formal training program to interact with students about judgment issues and believes judgment training is so important it will add the module to all of its core training programs as it adds the software during simulator updates. FlightSafety International asserts it is the only training company to offer such a program combined with realistic simulation experiences. While noting that runway judgment training was long overdue, Schuman conceded, “Simulators are not great places to teach things. But they are great places to perfect techniques, to practice.”
The Simulator Training
In early conversations with Schuman, I expressed skepticism at the increased value of anything new in flight simulation, especially since FSI’s Vital 9 series of simulators has become a near standard for realism.
Schuman laughed and remarked that seeing would be believing in the new runway judgment system. I met him in Wichita to see the new module in action. Flying copilot for me in the CJ2 during my one-hour intro was FSI’s Jerry Geer, a former U.S. Air Force C-5 commander. Our simulator instructor was Joe Cowan.
The CJ is about as easy a jet aircraft to fly as they come. But since the purpose of this simulator session was to test judgment, I reminded everyone it was important for FSI to prove to me that the new simulators should be able to demonstrate the dramatic results of bad decisions.
Our session began with the engines already at idle and the aircraft perched on the end of Runway 35 at Hutchinson Municipal Airport, northwest of Wichita. The runway was 4,251 feet long, and according to the takeoff and landing data card I’d worked out in the classroom, we’d need almost the entire runway at our takeoff weight. Just before we were cleared for takeoff, the tower controller told us the runway was wet because a rain shower had sprinkled the departure end of the runway.
I looked over at Geer and suggested we check the data for a wet runway in case of an abort. The book showed we’d come up short and I requested another runway for departure. Geer’s smile said that was the correct response. Some pilots, he said, would make the departure anyway, assuming that everything would keep running normally. If it did, the aircraft would lift off before the end of the runway. But I was there to sample the simulator’s new wares, so I asked to try the takeoff with whatever might be in store.
I pushed the thrust levers up and the roll began. Just before V1, about 95 knots, the aircraft began to swerve violently. I immediately pulled both thrust levers back as I climbed on the brakes. But I had already done the arithmetic, and it was clear we were going off the end no matter what I did. We left the surface at about 40 knots, and things changed pretty quickly.
In the past, a runway excursion at FSI meant little more than watching the ground turn from black to green as the airplane headed for the weeds. The entire picture turned red as the simulator picture froze in a futile bid to create fear.
This time, however, it was easy to identify the point at which the CJ left the concrete. The airplane shook as if it had just turned down an old farm road, an effect made more eye-opening because it was unexpected. During training it is nearly impossible to duplicate that startle factor. The right wing caught an approach light at one point and the entire aircraft quickly spun around before stopping. The only thing missing was the tower telling us they’d rolled the emergency equipment.
Next came a landing on the same short runway. This time, the anti-skid failure light popped on at two miles final. Although we were just under maximum landing weight, the runway was dry and I decided to continue the approach. That proved to be a huge mistake.
I was only a few knots above reference speed crossing the end, but my attempt to climb on the brakes after touchdown resulted in blowing the left main tire. That pointed us at the grass along the left side of the runway. With the airplane still doing 70 knots, this excursion produced a much more violent shaking of the airframe than the landing on the wet runway.
In fact, the ride was so rough that just as the left main gear collapsed and the aircraft began to spin around, I clipped the airport’s wind-measuring instruments along the way. The oxygen mask, normally stored behind and above the captain’s seat, fell from its hook and whacked me in the head. Schuman assured me that was not supposed to happen. I’m not sure I believe him, but the reinforcement for my error was pretty dramatic.
Since I’d already established a pattern of poor decision-making in the CJ, there seemed to be little reason to stop. I tried another approach to learn what would happen when the airplane left the runway at an even higher airspeed. I kept the airspeed well above ref all the way to the ground to simulate the earlier landing. Just after touchdown, I eased in a little right rudder to force the airplane off the runway to learn the result.
Leaving the runway environment at more than 100 knots made the previous two excursions feel like child’s play. The ride was so rough I’d have sworn I could feel my glasses bouncing off the end of my nose. Things were happening fast. The right main gear collapsed as the wingtip dug into the dirt. The last few seconds before the aircraft came to rest, it was clear I was simply a passenger along for a ride. There can be no scarier feeling in the cockpit. Thanks to the sturdy hydraulics of the big FSI sims, I felt the force of being spun around before everything stopped.
Like the stick shaker rattling a warning when you least expect it during training, the new “Off Runway Crash Enable” function is worth its weight simply for its ability to create surprise. The rough ride is a plus as reinforcement of what not to do.
Schuman said, “If pilots make good decisions, however, they’ll probably never experience any of the realism of any of these runway excursions. It’s similar to wind shear or wake turbulence events. We are training pilots to avoid these situations.”
In the end, Schuman conceded, “We can teach good analysis and we can teach pilots how to consider all the factors before they make a decision. We reinforce their choices and guide them to self-discovery.” If the student puts all the pieces of judgment training together incorrectly, Schuman said, “They probably need a new profession.”