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.
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.
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.