FAA Opts Out of Punishment for Harrison Ford Taxiway Landing

 - May 16, 2017, 7:15 AM

On February 13 this year, actor and long-time pilot Harrison Ford landed on Taxiway C at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., instead of Runway 20L as cleared by the tower controller. On April 3 Ford’s attorney, Steven Hofer, president of Aerlex Law Group, released a statement that the FAA was not going to sanction Ford for the taxiway landing. 

According to Hofer, “The [FAA] has notified Mr. Ford that the agency has closed its inquiry into his landing at Santa Ana Orange County Airport on February 13, 2017. The FAA conducted a full investigation into the matter, including an interview with Mr. Ford, and determined that no administrative or enforcement action was warranted. Mr. Ford retains his pilot certificate without restriction.”

While flying into John Wayne Airport, Ford was cleared to land on Runway 20L. He was warned about possible wake turbulence from an A320 landing on Runway 20R. An American Airlines 737 was taxiing to hold short of Runway 20L. Instead of landing on 20L, Ford flew his Aviat Husky—N89HU—over the 737 and landed on Taxiway C.

According to FAA tape recordings of the John Wayne tower, the controller instructed Ford to “make left traffic [Runway] 20L, traffic on a two-mile final for 20R is an Airbus, report it in sight.”

Ford responded: “Got the Airbus in sight, 89HU.”

The controller then warned Ford to “maintain visual separation, caution wake turbulence,” then cleared him to land on 20L.

Ford acknowledged the clearance. After a long period of silence—about two minutes—on the recording, the next voice heard is Ford’s, asking: “Tower, 9HU, was that airliner airplane supposed to be underneath me?”

The controller responded: “N89HU, negative, he’s holding short of 20L, you landed on Charlie.”

Ford then radioed: “I landed on Charlie?”

“Affirmative, sir,” said the controller, “and say parking?”

Call the Tower

After Ford was cleared to taxi to the Signature East FBO, he was told, “And Husky 9HU, possible pilot deviation, and I need you to call the tower, advise when you have a pen ready to copy a number.” He acknowledged then copied the tower phone number.


Shortly afterwards, Ford telephoned the John Wayne tower, and his first words to the controller who answered were: “Yeah, hi, it’s Husky 89HU, I’m the schmuck that landed on the taxiway…” He then interrupted the controller’s response and continued, “…I was distracted by the [unintelligible words] by the airliner, which was in movement when I turned to the runway and also the wake turbulence from the landing Airbus on the parallel runway.”

The controller responded: “OK, alright, so just a couple things. So, possible pilot deviation, because you were cleared to land on the left and you landed on…”

Ford: “I understand…”

Controller: “Alright.”

Ford: “Totally understand.”

The controller explained that he would be filling out some paperwork and forwarding it to the local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), then he asked for Ford’s name and pilot certificate number. Ford then said he had to find the certificate, which was in his backpack.

“OK, take your time, no big deal,” said the controller.

“Oh, it’s a big deal for me, hold on,” said Ford.

After Ford provided the information, the controller asked for Ford’s phone number for the FSDO to contact him, then said that someone from the FSDO would be in touch.

Ford responded, “No doubt, thank you very much.”

“Alright Mr. [the controller sounds as though he got Ford’s name wrong here], have a great day, no worries, bye.”

Captain’s Call

The next recording is from the telephone call made that same day to the tower by the captain of American Airlines Flight 1456, which was the 737 taxiing then holding short of Runway 20L, and the airplane that Ford flew over.

The controller with whom the captain spoke said she was familiar with the incident. “We’ll definitely do a systems service review to see what happened,” she said, “but [in] general, I can tell you straight up, the Husky was not cleared to land on Taxiway Charlie; he was cleared to land on 20L. He seemed to switch over…to Charlie, very short final—if that—the controller didn’t notice. So the next thing you know he’s…rolling out on Charlie.”

The captain then said, “When you check your radar tapes, I don’t know if you do that or not, he had, the tail of my airplane is 42 feet tall. So when he went by, if you can tell what he was doing when he crossed Taxiway Lima there where we were, you get an idea of how close it was.”

The controller explained that the radar likely wouldn’t have captured the Husky at that low an altitude, but that the controller working the Husky and Flight 1456 “even stated that there was, at least, less than 100 feet, in his perspective. So we know it was definitely not a good position for him to be in.”

The captain told the controller that after being cleared to hold short of Runway 20L on Taxiway Bravo, “[I] pulled up and held short and then I heard him talking to a Husky and I was looking forward to seeing it ‘cause I don’t get to see too many Huskys, but we never saw him cause he actually landed on Charlie.”

The controller praised the captain for “great awareness on the frequency,” then told him, “we are definitely looking into it to see what needs to be done from here on out.”

The captain thanked her, provided his phone number and assured her that he would file an Aviation Safety Action Program report. 

Narrowly Missed?

In the non-aviation media, Ford’s landing on the taxiway and flying over the American Airlines jet was characterized as “narrowly missing a jetliner carrying 100 passengers” (LA Times) or “after a near-miss with an airliner carrying 116 people” (Independent).

In fact, the video of the incident shows that the Husky’s flight path was in front of and possibly just over the nose of the American Airlines jet, and thus the 42-foot-tall tail had no bearing on the clearance between the two airplanes. Attorney Hofer believes that the wording used by the media is “a sensationalized mischaracterization of the situation. Harrison could see the airplane, he even commented on it, and he was well above it as the visual evidence demonstrates, both stills and video. I don’t think there was any suggestion whatsoever there was any serious element of risk. It was sensationalized in the media, but no one was placed at risk. If anybody had been at risk, the FAA’s views on this would have been very different.”

According to Hofer, the FAA’s new compliance philosophy was a factor in the way it resolved the incident. “This is a guy who has been flying for more than 20 years, and he’s got more than 5,000 hours in the cockpit and was never subject to enforcement or administrative action. He’s a very skilled pilot, a very conscientious and well trained pilot. There are some celebrity pilots who are weekend pilots, but he flies regularly, trains consistently and attends FlightSafety every year. The FAA did not conduct this as an enforcement action; it gave him the opportunity to participate in an interview. He was not under any legal oblIgation to do so, but voluntarily chose to. That is consistent with the philosophy of compliance.”

Hofer said that he sat through the FAA’s interviews with Ford. “They did not treat him with kid gloves,” he said. “They were polite but their questions were direct and pointed.” 

The FAA inspectors used photos, videos and ATC tapes and ran Ford through the entire flight, from the preflight inspection at Santa Monica Airport to the taxiway landing at John Wayne Airport. “They focused on his condition that morning,” Hofer said, “what he had to eat, how much sleep, every aspect of the flight, and asked him hard questions about it. He was absolutely ready to respond to every question, and he did so, and I believe they were impressed.”

After the interviews, the FAA decided to require Ford to participate in airman counseling, and he was quizzed on the material, he said.

In Hofer’s opinion, the FAA’s new compliance philosophy and counseling of errant pilots makes sense. “The amount of money and time and resources necessary to conduct a formal enforcement action dwarfs the cost of a compliance action. [Ford] understands his mistake, he was candid and forthright about what happened and sincere about nothing like that happening again.”