Two on the runway – what would you do?

It was a bright spring day in Central Ohio and my in-laws had come from New York to visit my wife and me for a few days. I had often spoken of flying with my father-in-law, but until now we had not had the chance to go up together. The time had come, and he was eager to see me do my thing. I reserved a Warrior at the Ohio State University Airport (KOSU), my home base, and set out a plan that would give us a couple of hours in the sky over the fields of central Ohio.

We would do a couple of touch-and-goes; I would demonstrate a short and soft field take-off for him; and, depending on how he felt, I might even do a few steep turns just to give him that sight picture as well. Nothing crazy – just a short introduction to the types of things that private pilots are required to demonstrate on check rides and flight reviews. He had his GoPro camera ready, so we set out for the airport. My plan for that day included non-towered airports: we would head southwest toward Madison County (KUYF), from there stop at the Grimes Airport in Urbana (I74), perform a couple more landings at Delaware (KDLZ), and then head back to KOSU.

Urbana
Grimes Field (I74) is a great airport to visit – but only if you can land first.

Madison County was devoid of traffic, which is not unusual for this small strip. A few instructors take their students to KUYF for pattern practice sometimes, but in general it is a pretty quiet little airport. As I overflew the field, circled over a pasture, and entered the downwind, making my calls on the CTAF when appropriate, I began to explain to Peter everything that I was doing. Our approach to landing was smooth, I put our little bird down with no problem, and we exited the runway. As we taxied back for departure, I told Peter that we would now do a short-field takeoff and head toward Grimes, where we would make a pit stop and grab something to drink from the airport diner.

The short flight from KUYF to I74 was uneventful. I climbed to 3000 MSL (around 2000 AGL) and began to make my calls on the CTAF within just a few minutes. At five miles southeast I made my second call, and then again at two miles to let everyone know that we were approaching the left downwind for runway 20. Once established on the downwind, I called again, and then on my base turn, and yet again when I turned final – the standard procedure. Using the landmarks that my former instructor and I had used to mark off the pattern at I74 on one of the numerous flights he and I had made there, I knew when I turned that we were somewhere between a half-mile and three-quarter mile final.

Within a few seconds of my announcement, as I was making my corrections for the light crosswind blowing across the field, a scenario that my former instructor and I had talked through several times became real right before my eyes – a pilot on the ground announced that he was departing runway 20. I saw him move from the hold short line onto the runway, and I announced that I was about to execute a go-around – by this point I was well within half a mile of the end of the runway. He immediately responded, “Don’t go around! You’ve got plenty of room to land!”

And that’s exactly what happened – I did not go around; the other pilot did not stop moving from the moment he crossed the hold-short line; he rolled down the runway and lifted off just before I reached the “piano keys” at the end of runway 20. I made a smooth, yet nervous, landing, taxied off, and said a few choice words under my breath as Peter and I walked into the airport terminal.

FAR 91.113(g) states that, “Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface […]” The text continues by stating that an aircraft on final cannot force another aircraft off the runway if it “has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach.” The second part of this regulation seems to apply to two aircraft landing on the same runway, one ahead of the other that is then expected to exit the runway before the other touches down.

The first part of the regulation, however, indicates to me that I, less than half a mile from the end of the runway at the moment the other pilot made his announcement, had right-of-way and that the other pilot should not have entered the runway for departure. If I had called a two-mile final or even a one-mile final, I would not have become so upset over the situation. After all, in those circumstances there is plenty of time and space for the pilot in the air to make a reasonable decision regarding the actions of a pilot on the ground.

Nor would I have become as nervous about the situation if I74 were a towered airport. We know, for example, that at towered airports ATC permits a Category I aircraft such as a Warrior to land on the same runway from which another Category I aircraft (a C-172 in this case) is departing, as long as 3000 feet of separation are maintained.

Incursion
What would you do?

However, at a non-towered airport, where pilots alone – without the help of ATC – are making the decisions, it seems unwise for an aircraft to take the runway when another is on a final leg of less than a mile. Is there any way to ensure that at least 3000 feet separate the two aircraft? An aircraft half a mile has a horizontal distance of approximately 2640 feet from another aircraft sitting at the end of the runway. If we really want to be technical, using the Pythagorean Theorem we find that an aircraft entering the final leg at 500 feet AGL, one-half mile away, is around 2687 feet from the end of the runway. Whichever way we want to calculate it, there are fewer than 3000 feet separating the two aircraft.

I know that daring pilots will always exist, and many will do dangerous things that have no lasting negative results. The situation I have just described does not present the level of danger that certain high-risk maneuvers might present. However, in this case both the pilot who decided to take the runway and the pilot on final (me) crossed the limits of what should be considered safe. The pilot on the ground made a decision quite possibly guided by the “get-there-itis” that we are told over and over by instructors to avoid. He assumed that he would have no mechanical issues before taking off and that he would, in fact, get off the ground before I touched down.

I made the same assumption. Reacting to the other pilot’s advice not to go around, I decided to continue with a landing that, in retrospect, I should not have performed. What if that C-172 had experienced engine failure or had blown a tire and veered off the side of the runway? Would I have had enough time and distance to get back off the ground without crashing into his backend, clipping his wing, or catching my landing gear on his rudder? Would I have been able to slow down quickly enough to taxi off the runway without flipping my own plane over in the process? These are, of course, hypotheticals that cannot be answered but that, nonetheless, should be considered.

My father-in-law and I made it back to KOSU that day with no problem, and he bragged to everyone about my professional “pilot’s voice” on the radio. In the end I felt good about the flight, in general, and his comments boosted my ego temporarily. But I have thought through that one part of our flight many times since then, and all of those times I have told myself that I should have gone around, that I should not have attempted that landing.

Speaking of non-towered airport operations, Swayne Martin says, “Plan to land and takeoff with the runway environment fully clear.” Maybe I’m a little too paranoid or maybe I’m a little too cautious, but I prefer that runway environment to include not just the pavement but also the imaginary centerline stretching out into the sky for a mile in both directions.

29 Comments

  • I’ve felt similar pressures before, and I think the right way to approach this is with ironclad rules that you never break. In this case, I have a rule that (iirc) is shared by the airlines, which is if somebody says go around, that’s the end of the conversation. Before every go-around I call it out loud even when I’m alone, and once I (or another pilot in the passenger seat) say those words nothing short of a fire or engine failure will keep me from returning to the safety of pattern altitude.

  • You should listen to yourself, the fact that you thought it over and given the chance to do it all again you would go around, so you answer your own question, next time go around if you feel uncomfortable play it safe. However you did land safely and you did learn that it can be done “IF” everything goes as planned. You questioned a lot of “what if’s” and trust me you didn’t list them all. The more you fly the more you find out what can and does go wrong. You also could have aborted at any time too, so sounds like you were ready for plan “B” even if you don’t think you were. Not to plug my own story but if you read “How one Pilots Story Saved my life” https://airfactsjournal.com/2018/11/how-one-pilots-story-saved-my-life/
    You will see how fast things can go “South” even at a controlled airport, I took action and made some very steep turns close to the ground, I was very comfortable at the time taking the risk and it was a huge risk, all ended well as with you. But these stories need to be told and read. I hope your story saves a life or two also, Thanks for taking the time to share with everyone. Next time don’t go to the “rule book” and try to figure out who is at fault, NTSB will do that for you should you crash and burn, just ask yourself do you want to tell this story tomorrow or have your love ones read about it in the paper. Trust me your version will put you in a far better light than NTSB’s version. There are a lot of Pilots that were Dead Right. I like to say there is every level of intelligence out there. We like to think Pilots are above average, but take the time to read a few accident reports it will wake you up in a hurry, playing it safe is NOT a crime.

  • Is one mile (5,280 feet) truly magic? Why not 1/2 a mile? Or 2 miles? Safety is in the mind of – and is the responsibility of – the imperiled.

    Also, please keep this in mind:
    Going around ABOVE a departing aircraft is a VERY dicey manuver. In such a situation, the go-around pilot needs to manuver such that s/he can keep the departing aircraft in sight until such time that it no longer is a factor for the continued flight of the go-around aircraft. The go-around pilot needs to consider the risks of such manuvering, both to him/herself AND to all other aircraft that are operating in the airport environment.

    Smart safety at all times.

    • Who said anything about landing over top of another person. The issue here was landing as another plane was taking off, at opposite ends of the runway, or, alternately, going around. There was never a question of landing “over top” of anybody. Reread the article.

      • I read the article to say both planes were using runway 20, not the opposite end on runway 02. Landing in front of or behind a departing airplane is something I hope to never experience.

      • The article says the author’s plane was landing on runway 20 and the traffic was departing on 20, so if traffic aborted takeoff early the author would have flown over him.

  • I have had idiots do this to me too – one time I was with a student on short final at about 200′ AGL when some fool just taxied right out in front of us and proceeded to takeoff, he made no calls (at least not on the local frequency) and he certainly did not hear any of our procedural inbound and circuit calls. I took control and we went around, displacing our aircraft to one side of the runway so we could keep him in sight. I turned it into a learning exercise with emphasis on the ‘one aircraft on the runway at a time’ plus a real-life go-round combined with the practical aspect of displacing our track to maintain visual contact with the traffic.

  • Given the short final and the risks of a go around, I would like to think I would do the same. During a Young Eagles event one of the wise old men of the chapter just pulled out onto the runway when I was short final with a plane full. I executed the go around, made the call, and the ground crew pulled him aside afterward to let him know what he had done.

  • You’re on a final approach and a fuel truck pulls onto the runway. Or a moose takes a walk across your path of flight, or an incorrectly piloted aircraft pulls onto the numbers and prepares to take off. You are facing a runway incursion and your response should be a missed approach. The other plane’s pilot is not a controller and you shouldn’t be taking advice or instructions from him. Your only option is to go around. If he’s rolling, you should divert away from his path of takeoff/flight. Get back in the pattern, don’t fly straight ahead. He’s already broken FARs, you don’t know what he’ll do next.

    • I second Mr. Herbst’s course of action and analysis.

      I appreciate Mr. Pool sharing his experience. I may likely have taken the same course of action.

    • I agree with Mr. Herbst. This has happened to me a couple of times, and I have always gone around, by side-stepping to keep the departing aircraft in sight while doing so. It was very unprofessional of the departing pilot to enter the runway in front of an aircraft on short final. I fly at least one aircraft with no radio, but I carefully look before entering an active runway to verify that there is no one on final.

  • At a Fly-In I attended as a spectator and passenger in a 172, my significant other in the front right and a low time pilot in the left seat, we made 3 attempts to land at this uncontrolled field in western PA. Amazingly, very little radio chatter and too many hotshot pilots ended our attempt to participate in the event. We actually had a shiny, all-aluminum RV7 approach UNDER us as we turned to final about 3/4 a mile out. Trying to keep a tight pattern was encouraged by the show organizers, but this was crazy! Talk about multiple aircraft within a mile out and back of approach! I advised our pilot that this was even too much for my level of time in command, so we aborted our plans and headed home. Fun sightseeing trip but not a safe environment at all. This was a great learning experience for our pilot to stick with his own personal limits and exercise good judgment.

  • In my view, you are certainly correct to have questioned your decision to land after having decided first and announced that you were going around. But what I would call an even bigger misjudgment came when you decided to accept the advice and direction of the pilot of the other aircraft. You were PIC of your aircraft, and the pilot of the other aircraft had no authority or responsibility for you aircraft’s safety or operation. In my view, that other pilot was doubly out of line for first the incursion and second his urging you not to go around, and you were doubly foolish for first even listening to him and second, for landing on a runway that was not clear.

  • Wondering how many hours you have and what kind of flying you do? The story does not strike me as that unusual, and I’ve had it happen to me quite a lot, similar to all pilots who go to uncontrolled fields.

    I don’t think it is as dangerous or dramatic as you are making it out to be.

    In this case if the offender said “no delay” and was rolling, I’d watch them and land, but being prepared to go around while stepping to the side, go around is a more dangerous maneuver than landing with him still in site and ahead. At half mile you had a good 30 or more seconds before there would be a conflict even if the guy sat on the runway. That’s adequate safety margin.

    If they lingered on the runway or didn’t communicate I’d immediately go around.

    I’ve had many a clueless pilot just pull out in front of me on final, probably at least a dozen times – I am always leery if I don’t hear anything from the pilots in the run up area – they may decide to go at any time – and am prepared to go around.

  • This will be my15th year of flying and I become more cautious at non-towered airports every year. I recently encountered a NORDO ultralight landing opposite direction as I was departing 30 minutes after evening civil twilight. Always expecting the worst at non-towered airports is the safest approach.

  • I would have gone around. Anything can happen to an aircraft on takeoff roll and climb out. Sidestep and watching for clearance is easier for me than avoiding an aircraft on the ground after I’m committed to land.

    Cheers

  • As has been said many times before “what goes around generally lands better”. My watch word is once I’ve said going around I’m going around – but as Ross and rick have said with a lateral offset to keep the other guy in sight

  • If the runway isn’t free you shouldn’t land. No matter what’s on the runway. Plane, people, dead cow – occupied runway is a no-no!

  • I think that all your concerns were valid but I think you instinctively made the best call initially and landed. The idiot cowboy had already demonstrated unpredictability and a lack of concern for safety. You could not be certain that he wasn’t going to turn into you if you sidestepped and went around. You were forced into choosing between risks; I think you chose the lesser of the two. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully it will make some idiot cowboys think a little more.

  • Your first instinct was exactly correct and the course of action you should’ve followed. The moment you decided to land you gave all control you had of the situation to the unknown pilot who foolishly decided to commence a takeoff with you at a half mile final. Had his engine seized, blew a tire or experienced anything which would’ve made him abort, both aircraft could’ve been a tangled heap of metal on the runway. Always trust your gut and choose the conservative approach unless there is a greater emergency that requires you to increase the risk. In this case, there was not.

  • Had an almost identical situation with a helicopter performing hover maneuvers at the far end of the field. I went around, helicopter pilot called “no conflict” I replied “disagree, but no problem “. If in doubt….

  • I disagree with a lot of the posters criticizing you for “taking the other pilots advice” you are PIC blah blah.

    We all agree the other pilot was cutting it close. However, when he told you to land, he wasn’t “commanding you to land”, but instead relaying his plans to immediately take off without delay and his judgment it was ok. This is like a position report. Thus, your independent decision, with the new information from him, to land I think was the right thing to do.

    Imagine he was in an Extra 300 and planning to do a performance takeoff. You going around would then place you in conflict and he may fly right up into the path of your slower plane despite you initially being higher.

    I’d want to keep a guy like this in site, and would have watched him take off and landed behind him. If he lingered on runway I would have gone around and stepped to the side to keep him in sight.

    I don’t think you did anything wrong. I don’t think it was dramatic or that reckless. I’ve safely operated in very congested airspace and it requires a lot of communication. While you were uncomfortable there was little conflict and I think the whole thing sounded routine and safe.

  • Yep I would have listened to my inside voice and gone around off to the side of the runway so I could see him executed and early cross wind turn and continued the circuit but I would have taken the tail number and had his guts for such a stupid thing to do including the audacity to tell you what to do. Easy for us to say sitting i our arm chairs. Glad your passenger enjoyed their flight because as a private pilot this is what made all that cost and effort worth while.

  • I did all my flying in Victoria BC, Canada. A great place to take up flying. I was working on my CPL. One day, Mr. Eric Gorle who was a senior AME and father of the school owner advised me to go flying to Williams Lake in the north. He also advised me to route via Pemberton. This was a route I had already flown earlier on my mountain check-out. I just had to continue for another three after crossing Permberton to reach Williams Lake. He advised me, crossing Pemberton, I will have to land an uncontrolled airport to re-fuel.
    I was excited. I called a girl, Miss Nina Hopper to fly with me. She was also was doing her PPL. We had a good team. After the preliminaries and checks complete, we took off and headed towards Fraser Canyon north of Vancouver.
    In our excitement, after crossing Pemberton, we missed the little airport Eric had mentioned. He only mentioned the existence of the uncontrolled airport but didn’t give us the name. In fact the uncontrolled airport was Pemberton and we had crossed over by more than an hour.
    Fuel gauges were just above the red line and Nina kept pointing out. I covered the gauges with rubber suckers used in partial panel training. Our fun flight was getting to me a worrisome flight.
    We continued for another fifteen minutes looking to see any little mountain airstrips. I was flying over the highway just in case I had and engine flameout.
    All at once, Nina in great excitement yelled there is an airstrip down below. I looked and confirmed. I called out my position on the UNICOM. We looked out for traffic and seeing none, flew and crossed over the mid field at a slightly higher altitude. Transmitted my position again and saying descending to circuit altitude and joining left downwind. I transmitted again on the base leg and on final. When we had the Cessna 172 fully configured for landing, we saw a light twin taxi into position for take-off on our reciprocal heading. He never called or transmitted. I flicked my lights continuously and transmitted my position again. Luckily, this pilot heard me and answered my call. Don’t know why he never called before taxi or during lining up to position for take off. He exited the runway. I landed and taxied my airplane staring towards refuel stand where it was a self-serve procedure as in many uncontrolled airports. My fuel tanks were dry and my Lycoming engine was running on vapours.
    I do not know if we had enough fuel for a go-around and come for a second approach. Worrisome flight ended well. We both had big smiles.
    Place we landed on was 108 Mile Ranch.

  • What’s the problem? As long as the preceding aircraft got the wheels off the ground the runway is yours. The decision of going around is up to you. If you are not able to execute this maneuver in time: Practice, practice, practice and decide timely.

  • Interesting comments and story. Spacing to me is a decision each pilot must respond appropriately. Landing at AirVenture is all about spacing with 3 or brightly painted dots on each runway and multiple aircraft on final at the same time. There undoubtedly have been some interesting maneuvering, but few incidences as aircraft are able to exit the runway almost anywhere along its length, and ATC is really on their game. At a non-towered airport, and likely fewer aircraft, using good judgement and reasonable distances become paramount. Continuing your approach as you did still allowed you to make decisions as if a deer or other intruder enter the runway or the departing aircraft had to abort. If you felt you still had time to make the go-around with closing distance favorable, you made the right decision. My CFI brother always said flying safely is making good decisions, and allowing adequate room for surprises.

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