KOLD INVESTIGATES: Wrong runway landings in Tucson

Published: Aug. 29, 2017 at 11:43 AM MST|Updated: Aug. 29, 2017 at 1:30 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Three pilots landed on the wrong runway over the course of a year at Tucson International Airport.

As the term suggests, the potentially dangerous close calls occur when a pilot is cleared for a specific runway but he or she lands on a different one.

The Federal Aviation Administration, pilot organizations and Tucson Airport Authority are working to prevent any more wrong runway landings from happening.

"It's a very rare occurrence, but any occurrence is obviously one that has the potential for something," said Mike Smejkal, TAA Planning Vice President. "We always want to try to avoid all wrong runway landings."

Junaid Adil flew Tucson News Now around for a pilot's eye view of the runways at TIA. (Source: Tucson News Now)

Leadership at the airport addressed the issue years ago.

Back then, pilot Junaid Adil made the mistake himself.

He didn't even realize what happened until the tower notified him of the wrong runway landing.

"Oh my God that was scary," Adil said. "Scary because of the consequences."

The consequences of a wrong runway landing could be just about anything, according to Adil.

He said a pilot could cut off another plane attempting to land or touch down on a runway with another plane preparing to take off.

In the history of TIA, nobody's ever been hurt.

A satellite image from Google Maps shows the "Taxi" label and green striping to distinguish the taxiway. (Source: Google Maps)

In response to previous wrong runway landings like Adil's, airport staff made some changes to the runways for smaller, personal planes.

They're the only types of aircraft involved in this issues at TIA. No commercial or military planes have experienced the problem.

Those changes included adding runway end lights and marking TAXI largely across the taxiway next to runway 29R.

"Those things have had some positive effect and it's definitely decreased the occurrences," Smejkal said. "But, again, we want to completely eliminate them."

Listening to the audio recordings of pilots and the control tower in Tucson, it sounds like the pilots are mistaking the runway they're cleared to land on.

"They confuse a taxiway for a runway essentially," Smejkal said.

That's because the taxiway, though clearly labeled now, is similar in size and length of runway 29R. Junaid said the only explanation for when he made the mistake years ago is that he didn't notice runway 29L because it's shorter than 29R.

So a pilot cleared for 29L might assume that the actual 29L is 29R then land his or her plane on the wrong runway. That exact situation happened to a pilot who apologized several times to the control tower.

Adil points out where he landed on the wrong runway years ago. Some changes to the layout have been made since then and more are on the way. . (Source: Tucson News Now)

During one of the more recent landing errors a pilot already on the ground called the tower to make sure there was a record of it.

"You guys saw that though, right?" he asked. "We just looked up and whoa, wrong runway."

Adil said he feels like he's coming home when he lands in Tucson. He credits the tower at TIA for that feeling of safety and familiarity.

"The controllers are excellent and very helpful," he said. "And if you're making a wrong move, they'll tell you."

The airport authority, the FAA and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association all want the same result - no more wrong runway landings.

The FAA issued a notice to all pilots months ago, which alerted Tucson News Now to the issue. The notice is meant as an extra warning to pilots traveling to Tucson.

In effort to reduce pilot confusion through infrastructure, Smejkal said the plan is to extend runway 29L so it's more in line with 29R. He added that a taxiway between the two should help distinguish which is which.

Those changes are part of the airports larger improvement project. Smejkal said it's currently going through the FAA's National Environmental Police Act (NEPA) process. Once it's approved, the project would still need funding.

Smejkal estimated it could be until 2023 or 2024 until the work is complete.

"Tucson is a very safe place to fly in and out of," he said.

The FAA sent out a notice to all pilots after several wrong runway landings at TIA. Nobody's been hurt by the mistakes. (Source: Tucson News Now)

Adil said he understands the need for making all the changes at once, instead of occasionally closing area of the airport to finish smaller jobs.

Until the improvements are complete, and even after they're done, Adil admits that pilots are still responsible for their actions.

"Pilots tend to take shortcuts," he said. "And that's not good for flying."

The FAA investigates all wrong runway landings and other runway incursions, according to Ian Gregor, Public Affairs Manager of the FAA Pacific Division.

He said every case is different, so there is no standard for discipline.

Reckless behavior or inappropriate risk taking is not tolerated, according to Gregor. He said pilots could be disciplined with fines, certificate suspension or even lose their certificate altogether.

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