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Isn’t taxiing the “easy part” of being a suntanned gravity-defying winged god—I mean, pilot?  One would think that taxiing an aircraft would be much, much easier than flying one. But I hypoxisize that one would be much, much wrong.

A non-pilot (a “ground-pounder”) might think, “Taxiing an aeroplane must be easy! You have your really easy-to-read signs, just like on streets, right?  Otherwise taxiing an aeroplane would be, uh, like, totally dangerous and difficult, right?” Right you are, ground-pounder, taxiing can be both, “D and D.” For example, the tower people like to call you as soon as possible after you land, four seconds after the wheels hit the ground (after the mains hit the ground for the first time, in a crow-hop landing). I wouldn’t be surprised if they called me in the flare sometime. “Citation 246GF, where are you parking?” is just a super call to get at about 83 knots groundspeed, the buckets still out.

G280 on ground

Don’t be surpursised of ATC is attempting to call you while still on the runway.

I offer this gem of a taxi-instruction call, from a chipper tower controller the other day. Just after we landed at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Runway 9. (sidenote: notice how close the airport identifier, KCID, is to “acid?” Coincidence?  Discuss.) “Citation 246GF, turn left on Runway 13, right on Alpha, left on Echo, right on Echo Two to parking with me.”  We were the only aircraft moving at the airport.  The the call sounded like:


He spoke at eighteen knots, gusting to thirty, is what I’m saying, and the aircraft was only demonstrated to twenty-three knots of crosswind. Now, to be fair, he may be a part-time auctioneer, or maybe there was a squadron of airplanes coming in from behind us, unbeknownst to us, and he wanted us off the runway. Or maybe he was on acid, with an FAA medical waiver. Anyhoo, his radio call made all the circuit breakers pop in my head—click, click, click! (all three)— and, slowing the aircraft to a moderate 147 knots, I said to pilot-partner, “Dang, I didn’t get that, did you?”

airport diagram

The rapid fire taxi instructions were “Citation 246GF, turn left on Runway 13, right on Alpha, left on Echo, right on Echo Two to parking with me.”

What’s that you say, dear reader? Oh, why thank you—I didn’t even think of pre-studying the airport diagram, and having it open on my iPad eight inches from my face, bathing my handsome rugged pilot features in a bluish glow. (I wear a Harrison Ford mask when flying, as all the pros do.)

Like expletive deleted, I didn’t—I was staring right AT it, bug-eyed and buffaloed.  I looked at the pilot next to me, who turned and looked out the window, then at the floor, then tapped on a gauge, pretending to be busy. I deduced from his actions that he had November Charlie (no clue) (His “I’m busy, here, it’s your job to get the radios” ruse would have been more believable if he had not tapped on a glass panel gauge.  This is CRM.) Thinking quickly, I realized I had to query the tower dude.  To sound good, I. keyed the mic and said professionally,  “Huh?”

The tower guy said it all again, just as fast (to show off his facial muscle movement to his co-worker, maybe) and this time I got it, repeated it back correctly. Then the tower guy laughed, like what he had just power-blurted twice was a super-easy-to-understand string of syllables: “Ha ha, yeah, it’s just a left—right—left—right, ha ha!” Oh yes, ha ha, chortle-boy.  (Full disclosure, the next time we landed there, the tower guy spoke slower, and clearly—and I still dorked-up the read back, even though I knew exactly what he said.  Sigh.)

Notice how there sometimes aren’t really excellent sign locations at an airport? Like sometimes, the taxiway signs are sometimes so far apart that after you pass one sign and turn a corner, the next one telling you that you are on the correct taxiway (the “non-violated taxiway”) is so far ahead you can’t see it without taxiing a long way?  And you forgot your telescope?

taxiway sign

The locations of taxiway signs are not standardized from airport to airport.

Airport construction worker: “This is as good a spot as any for Taxiway A3 sign, Jim.  Let’s break for lunch.”

It’s like you’re given taxi instructions, the radio frequency afterwards goes dead quiet, and they watch you from the tower to see if you make it. Take the airport KANE, otherwise known as Janes Field, or Anoka County, or Blaine, (or secretly, to me, “this infernal airport.”) The FBO, Atlantic Aviation, is on Taxiway C2, right next to C1, and then you have your A3, not to be confused with A4, parallel right next to it, and down (or up) in the corner, lurking, is Taxiway A.

My instructor asked me: “Now from where we sit, where is the intersection of A3 and C1?”  I pointed exactly the wrong way, and he said “A lot of pilots get turned around out here, and enter the wrong taxiway at that intersection.” Interesting.  It’s because of the layout and the signage or lack of.  We pilots can follow taxi instructions, but, in the case of Anoka County Blaine Janes Field (whew!), it’s super easy to make a wrong turn, he said, and pilots do it all the time.

Airport diagram

The FBO, Atlantic Aviation, is on Taxiway C2, right next to C1, and then you have your A3, not to be confused with A4, parallel right next to it, and down (or up) in the corner, lurking, is Taxiway A.

Sometimes a taxiway sign will be located before the taxiway (you turn after the sign), sometimes abeam it (turn at the sign), like at Fargo’s airport, (which, by the way, is totally international, it’s right there in the title “Hector International.”) Worse than Fargo’s KFAR is the Martinsburg, Eastern West Virginia Regional/Shepherd Field, KMRB. (What, do the people who name airports just speak names until they run out of breath?) The hold short line for Runway 26 is way, way back on a parallel Taxiway A.  Yup, you’re supposed to hold short before coming anywhere near turning perpendictular toward the runway, like, let’s see, every other airport you’ve ever been at, ever.   

Holding short

Even hold short lines can be located in unexpected locations.

Let’s look at the Chart Supplement (formerly the Airport/Facility Directory, or “A/FD” as ForeFlight still calls it because, why not call it that?). Does it explain the tricky hold-short line located out in East Egypt on Taxiway Alpha?  No, it does not, but helpfully says, in AIRPORT REMARKS: “No grass landings.”  I suppose it’s implied “No taxiing on the grass, either.”

Did I mention that the miserable hold short line for Runway 26 is faded and almost invisible?  Well, it is, and why?  Obviously because there is no more paint left in the world, is why.  So the KMRB tower people just wait, watching you with their high-powered mil-spec binoculars until you (“I”) taxi across the hold short line without clearance, then snort over the radio: “You just crossed the hold line for Runway 26. Snort.” Then they high-five each other, and check to see who won the “tower office pool.” But Martinsburg tower doesn’t hammer you— which is to say violate you—they had their fun with your (my) hold-line crossing, and are busy betting on the next pilot to cross the faded-out hold line on the parallel taxiway without clearance.

At least airport signage is mostly all equally bad, so we pilots can have low expectations and not be surprised so much.  Signs are all on the same level (the ground), are often small and, this is nice, sometimes have burned-out lights that you don’t know about because you missed that NOTAM, didn’t you, (and by “you” I mean “me” already.)


Effective: Oct 10, 08:00 CST (just before you taxi)

Expires:   NEVER EVER

We pilots don’t miss overhead signs, or ones that are eye-level but safely off to the side, out of wing-scrape distance.  It’s a shame that there are so very few (zero) of these. Some signs are painted right on the taxiways and runways. This is apparently to save money on sign posts, and metal plate signs with reflective paint (because of the metal shortage?).

I saw old article in AVweb magazine dated October 11th, 2010 titled:  “FAA: Runway Incursions Down By Half”. The article says there were only six “serious” (versus humorous) runway incursions in 2010 versus twelve in 2009. In 2022, some twelve years later—there were 1732, according to the FAA.  Gasp. And more than 700 so far this year, 2023.

Here’s an FAA post you’d think was from the “early days” of aviation, like 1952—except it’s not, it’s only a year or so old:

“Currently, there is no standard shape to designate a hot spot on airport diagrams within chart supplements and the Terminal Procedures Publication; they are charted with a variety of squares, rectangles, circles, ovals, and ellipses with no pattern or consistency.”

The post goes on to say “Beginning May 19, 2022, the FAA will standardize these symbols to three shapes with two distinct meanings: a circle or ellipse for ground movement hot spots and a cylinder for wrong surface hot spots.”

Here’s a job the FAA is working on now, called “Runway Incursion Mitigation. Of course they have an acronym for this job: “RIM.” (Ahem.) The FAA writes they have developed a database of “approximately 520 airports with civilian air traffic control towers,” and goes on to say there were tons of runway incursions (RI) in the year 2022.  (They measure in “short tons” for short planes.)

In their “Problematic Taxiway Geometry Study Overview,” (“PTG Report”), the FAA developed a database of 6098 airport locations with nonstandard geometry, also known as problematic taxiway geometry (PTG) locations. They list nineteen different things that lead to pilot confusion.  I plucked out four from their list:

  • Nonstandard markings and/or signage placement
  • Use of a runway as a taxiway
  • Unexpected holding position marking on parallel/entrance taxiway
  • Greater than three-path taxiway intersection

If taxiing was “easy,” would there even be “hotspots?” You look at some airport diagrams and think—they should just draw a “hotspot circle” around the whole thing.

You look at some airport diagrams and think—they should just draw a “hotspot circle” around the whole thing.

Airport diagrams—a person could look at them sitting in a chair at home and think “How could a person ever dork up taxiing from parking to the runway, or from a runway to parking? It looks simple.” Yeah, from your chair at home. It’s apparently not all that hard to make a “taxi mistake,” because it’s happening daily. Especially nightly.

We pilots, even though it’s the year 2023 and we have iPads, have to do more than get a taxi clearance, jot down some shorthand notes, glance at the airport layout, push up the throttles and start taxiing, and assume the taxiway signs and markings will be obvious—oh, it’ll all be obvious, no prob. Everything is obvious–until it ain’t–and then a pilot can suddenly find themselves in a big patch of concrete with no signs, a vast wasteland of concrete, the size of a Walmart parking lot (without the big blue building nearby,) and you’re supposed to know which way to go—because you did copy down the taxi clearance, right? Yes, yes, of course. But still….where the heck is Taxiway E2?

My oh-so-patient instructor at KANE (Anoka, MN) recently (last week) told me to really thinkvisualize the different possible taxi routes the controller might give me, when there is time to think–like before starting descent into the airport, or before calling for taxi clearance from parking. Take KMIA. Please.

At Miami International, where Taxiway Q meets Taxiway M, there is a strange triangle shape with dashed lines around it there on the Jeppson taxi diagram. And a Hotspot circle. And a large dashed square, around the whole Hotspot circle, which circles approximately one hundred and fifty taxiways. Look at that mishmash: Taxiways R1, Q1, Q, N, M, M1, L1, for heaven’s sake, and then you have your Runway 12, and 8R barging in, too, demanding equal play. (Runway 8L is sulking, off to the side, the “Rudolph” of the “Runway Games.”)

An aggregation—a “gob,” a “goat rope,” a “dog’s breakfast, even—of taxiways and runways, all meeting together, with a solid triangle inside a dashed triangle inside a Hotspot circle inside a dashed-line square, inside a riddle, wrapped in an onion. It’s the Russians! I knew it! Or is it that 5G interference I keep hearing about?

So the FAA is throwing $6 Million at that little Bermuda Triangle. Many pilots have disappeared there over the years, turning up at—yes—the Miami Walmart parking lot, fourteen miles away. What that airport layout looks like is someone got tired of drawing, and said “Oh, the pilots will figure it out. After all, there’s a big piece of concrete, plenty o’ room.  See and avoid.” The FAA’s Associate Administrator of Airports, Shanetta R. Griffin, said “Some airports have complex layouts that can create confusion for pilots…”

Ms. Griffin, with all due respect, may I say “D’ya think?”

In my case, I notice if I don’t really pay attention, I can get turned around on an super-simple airport with, simple taxiways. Like at Devils Lake, North Dakota, KDVL, for example, where you might have to rev up the prop to chase off a coyote to get to the gas pump (of course use 1800 RPM, like the POH says.) Question: Land on Runway 3, and uhhh, where’s that turn-off? Answer: In your imagination.

Full disclosure: I bet I could make a wrong turn coming out of my driveway on a bad day

Fuller disclosure: I don’t have a driveway.

Sigh. I wish taxiing was as easy as flying an ILS down to minimums in a crosswind at night—which of course the autopilot does for me.


Matt Johnson
Latest posts by Matt Johnson (see all)
12 replies
  1. Chris
    Chris says:

    When ATC pushes fast- slow down. Finish the landing (Aviate). Select your safest exit point (Navigate). Clear the active. Stop. Sip your coffee. Then (Communicate) ask for taxi instructions. The controller will get the message and be have themselves for the next 4 or 5 arrivals.

    BONUS ROUND- taxi across an unfamiliar large metro airdrome (CDG, ORD, JFK, ETC) after a night CATIIIB approach in a heavy. Everything in aviation is easier after that.

    • Duane Mader
      Duane Mader says:

      I landed at Houston Hobby for the 1st time a few days before the Citation and Hawker incident. I could see the risk involved with the crossed runway layout. I gave tower my destination FBO before landing. Ground Control did the machine gun clearance to park as I cleared the runway. “Stand by”. Got out a pen and pad. “Say again”. Wrote it down, followed it all the way to the destination FBO on the taxi chart. THEN read it back. Single pilot jet, don’t need to be in a competition to see how fast I can read back your clearance.

  2. Brian Lloyd
    Brian Lloyd says:

    Heh, yeah. Most pilots and some controllers are unaware of the ICAO recommendation for a speech rate of 100 words-per-minute. One of the airports where I bring students for training at a tower-controlled airport is a training tower. It seems like younger people want to talk at 300-400 WPM. I find that about the third time I say to them, “Say again,” they get the message and slow down. Darlin’ as long as you are going to speak too fast to me I have no trouble sayin’, “Say again,” to you. Eventually you figure out that the whole exchange gets done much more quickly if you speak slowly enough that what you have to say is absorbed on the first go around.

    How’s that saying go, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast?” Applies here too.

    And I too have had tower issue instructions while I’m in the flare. I find that a quick, “Stand by,” solves that problem too. I ignore what they had to say until after they tell me where to turn off. I clear the runway and at that point I say, “Ready to copy,” and we can proceed. It works just peachy.

    Just sayin’.

  3. L Dalton
    L Dalton says:

    Once upon a VERY long time ago, I was flying into the Chicago area to land at Meigs (yes, and that was long before the crazy mayor bulldozed it) in a little Yankee. Chicago approach was talking to at least a thousand other airplanes and, I’m sure a few hundred pigeons or butterflies, so fast it sounded like a 33 rpm record playing at 45. (Really a long time ago, eh?) I couldn’t understand ANYTHING he was saying.

    So I keyed the mike and said, “Chicago approach Yankee 33WTF, can you slow down a bit. I’m a country boy and unable to copy fast enough.”

    His voice suddenly changed to a tone dripping with sarcasm, absolute disgust, or something similar, and he said, “R o g e r Y a n k e e W T F, M a i n t a i n b e l o w 1 5 0 0 h e a d 0 2 0 c o n t a c t M e i g s t o w e r W a s t h a t s l o w e n o u g h ? ”

    Or even longer ago than that when you could actually fly a still relatively young Taylorcraft BC12D equipped with a Narco Superhomer into Cleveland Hopkins Airport, the tower told me, “Report Searstown.”

    After a quick search of the sectional with no success finding the little flag denoting a reporting point, I replied, “Uh, tower T’craft 5109M, I can’t find Searstown on the chart, will a farmer on a red tractor towing a manure spreader do the job?”

    Silence. Then “Taylorcraft 09M, contact tower two miles from left downwind for runway whichever it was.”

    Now that I could do. About a month later, the Ohio Flyer Newsletter published by the Ohio Department of Aviation carried a story headlined “Pilot Reports Tractor With Manure Spreader,” and explained that the tower boss had been in the cab at the time and had instructed all involved that ONLY published reporting points could be used when instructing aircraft approaching the field.

    So maybe pilots can get revenge . . . . unless that would violate FAR Part 23,002 or something.

  4. Mac Hayes
    Mac Hayes says:

    Oh, for the days in the previous century; I landed at ORD on 31L, taxied to Butler (yes, that long ago) using “inner” and “outer” taxiways. Almost two hours later I was ready to leave, the ground controller must have had eidetic memory – taxi route instructions were “the same way I taxied in” to Runway 31L. I pondered over whether the controller had had a break, or had been on GC position from my arrival.

  5. Ray Nickels
    Ray Nickels says:

    Nice writing, Matt. Like your style. As a 727 captain many years ago at ORD, I looked over as my F/O prepared to request taxi clearance. He did not have a pen. As expected, the controller spit out about 15 taxiways and 25 turns in about 10 seconds. I waited. My F/O valiantly attempted to read back, apparently making things up along the way. After a short pause, the controller exclaimed, “not even close!” I smiled and handed my partner a pen.

    Other comments have been spot-on. If need be, just pull over, stop and ask for a repeat. Ask again if you need to. And again. Still not clear, as for an explanation or the ever-available “progressive taxi.” Hey, it’s your airplane, not the controller’s.


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