By Paul Wiley

This article discusses a very recent “incident” that occurred at Prescott (PRC) Regional airport on Sunday, April 3, 2022, while practicing instrument approach procedures. The incident was a runway incursion and could have resulted in a collision on the ground at high speed.

Before getting into the details of this incident, let me first say as a CFI that in nearly 50 years of flying, I have only experienced a handful of times where an Air Traffic Controller made a mistake which could have led to an accident. I consider FAA controllers to be highly trained, proficient in their jobs and very professional. I have the utmost respect for them and the difficulties of their job. However, being human they are susceptible to error, just as we pilots are. I think just about everyone (certificated pilots and non-pilots alike) has heard the phrase: “pilot error.” As part of their operating procedures, controllers are required to report certain pilot mistakes. Sometimes this results in disciplinary action against an offending pilot. I’m confident that this incident is currently being investigated by the FAA. So, enough said about that…

when controllers make mistakes air traffic control tower

The incident: While shooting a practice approach (ILS 21 L) in a Cessna 206, we were cleared for the option by the tower when we made the requested call at five miles on final. My client acknowledged the clearance and informed the tower we would be making a touch and go and then return for the RNAV (GPS) approach to runway 21 left. We touched down in a strong, southerly crosswind at the fixed distance markers and during the rollout the flaps were reset for takeoff and pitch trim was adjusted. While still traveling about 50 to 55 knots, my client and I noticed an airplane ahead taxiing toward our runway from an intersection. We both commented that it appeared he may not stop, and we needed to keep an eye on him. Sure enough, this airplane continued to taxi onto our runway and lined up for takeoff. Note that we could not hear any transmissions from this intruding airplane or from the tower as it was apparently on Prescott’s other tower frequency. At this point, we agreed we were too close to this airplane (estimated at 100 yards or less) and we converted our touch and go to a full stop. We stopped on the runway and remained stopped for several seconds while my client expressed her incredulity that this plane had just taxied out onto “our” runway while we had been cleared for (and during) a touch and go. Subsequently, the tower instructed us to turn left at Delta 4 and contact ground.

While on ground control frequency we asked the controller why that airplane taxied onto the active runway while we were in the process of executing our touch and go. The controller replied that they thought this airplane was at the departure end of the runway. Had we not been aware of this airplane and taken appropriate action the most likely result would have been a nasty accident.

when controllers make mistakes cessna 206h

Our Air Traffic Control (ATC) system is predicated upon redundancy. This is one of the strengths of our system. What does this mean in terms of our current discussion? If a pilot makes a mistake, usually the controller will catch the mistake and take action to prevent an incident or accident. Example: a pilot is on final approach for a full stop landing in a plane with retractable landing gear, but the gear is not down. Normally the controller would observe this and order the pilot to execute a go-around; thus, preventing an all too common (and embarrassing) accident. Likewise, if a controller makes a mistake the pilot would normally catch the mistake and take action to prevent an incident or accident. Example: controller clears a flight to descend to an unsafe altitude. Normally the pilot would realize that terrain or other obstructions make descent to that altitude unsafe and refuse that clearance. What happens when a mistake is made and neither the pilot nor controller recognizes the mistake? This is when an incident or accident can happen. Example: many years ago, an Air Force C-141 was making an approach to McChord Air Force Base near Seattle, Washington (I believe in IMC) when the controller issued a clearance to “descend and maintain 14,000 feet.” The pilot acknowledged the clearance and descended to 14,000. Tragically the aircraft was very close to Mt. Rainer (maximum elevation 14,410 MSL) and impacted the mountain destroying the airplane and killing all on board. Obviously neither the controller nor the pilot recognized the position (relative to the mountain) or the situation. Note that this accident occurred prior to improvements in avionics technology which now provides pilots with much better terrain awareness in many of today’s cockpits. Advances in technology have also been added to the toolkit controllers can use today to help keep pilots safe and the ATC system running smoothly.

when controllers make mistakes

Operations at busy airports: An airport like Prescott is more complex than most airports. PRC is very busy with a mix of training aircraft, regional commuter aircraft, military aircraft, firefighting aircraft, and the normal and diverse mix of General Aviation aircraft including slow speed training aircraft and high-speed business jets. This is a perfect example of why all pilots need to be alert at all times. Additionally, Prescott has two parallel runways (3 - 21 left and right) and a third runway (12 - 30), making for a more complex situation both on the ground and in the air. Prescott also quite often experiences strong winds and is at an elevation of over 5,000 MSL (think high density altitude). Putting all these factors together means that the situation can get complicated quickly. Pilots should study the airport diagram and be thoroughly familiar with all approach and departure procedures prior to flying into an airport like Prescott where good situational awareness is required. As my friend and fellow CFI Tommy likes to say: “A good landing follows a good approach, and the approach starts on downwind.” Or in the case of instrument approaches, the approach starts at the initial approach fix. This means that the pilot should be thinking ahead and anticipating what may happen next.

when controllers make mistakes checklist

Lessons Learned: Pilots must remember that by law the pilot in command is always responsible for the safety of their flight. This responsibility should never be given over to anyone else, including air traffic controllers. FAR 91.3 (a) states: “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority to, the operation of that aircraft.” Except in the event of an in-flight emergency, pilots must follow ATC instructions. However, the pilot in command is still responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft. Pilots should never hesitate to ask for clarification of ATC instructions if they believe following those instructions would compromise safety.

Be ready for an unusual situation, like an aircraft cutting in front of you in the air or on the ground. This advice applies at any airport. At more complex airports it is not unusual for pilots (especially transient pilots) to be confused about their position. If you are not completely sure of the situation, then ask ATC for clarification. During this same flight we heard a pilot of a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle ask Prescott tower for clarification of his instructions. He was confused as the tower had just changed runways due to strong winds and he was heading in the wrong direction. A short discussion with ATC cleared up the confusion and the pilot was able to proceed safely with that help from ATC.

when controllers make mistakes air traffic

Good communications are critical for safety at busy airports. Do not “sneak up” on the tower at a busy airport. The initial call to the tower should be made at 15 to 20 miles from the airport. Get the ATIS information first, then listen on the tower frequency for a few seconds before contacting the tower. Always use your call sign in all transmissions with the tower. Communications should be clear and succinct, and your position should be stated accurately.

In conclusion, mistakes by controllers are very rare, but they do happen. It is incumbent upon pilots to always be alert to the situation at hand and to remember that the pilot in command is always responsible for the safety of that flight.

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