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Overshooting a Runway Wrongly Perceived as Pilot Problem: Expert

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MONTREAL – Despite new technologies and data available on runway accidents – the leading cause of aviation deaths – runway excursions have remained stable since at least 1995, James Burin said Wednesday.

The director of technical programs for Alexandria, Va.-based Flight Safety Foundation told the 2nd annual International Winter Operations conference hosted by the Air Canada Pilots Association that of the 1,508 aviation accidents between 1995 and 2009, 442, or nearly a third, were runway excursions. Only 10 were runway incursions.

An excursion is overshooting a runway, either on takeoff or landing, while an incursion is usually an unauthorized object – generally another aircraft – on a runway.

Formed in 1947, the not-for-profit foundation conducts studies on various aspects of aviation safety.

Burin, who led a study on runway excursions, said they are wrongly perceived by most as a pilot problem.

They’re not, he told the conference entitled Safety Is No Secret.

“They involve aircrews, airline management, air traffic control and regulators – they all play a role,” said the former U.S. Navy pilot who was a wing commander during the first Gulf War.

The reasons for the great disparity between incursions and excursions, Burin said, is the relative ease of preventing aircraft from bumping into each other – at low speeds.

Excursions usually involve high speeds, weather issues and human judgment.

One of the major obstacles hampering efforts to lower the incidence of these crashes, said Burin, is there is no single accepted standard measuring the conditions of runways.

The other “mystery,” said Burin, is the reluctance of pilots and air traffic to do more go-rounds in dodgy situations – to scrap a landing approach, go around the runway and try again.

“Why they don’t is really the question,” Burin said. “But it’s partly psychology, partly procedure – what’s considered safe.”

Most of the time, they are proven right, he noted – they land safely. And the 442 excursions resulted in 812 fatalities, statistically not excessive over 15 years.

Montreal’s International Civil Aviation Organization has isolated runway incidents as a major problem and has advocated one universal system to describe runway conditions.

Nancy Graham, director of ICAO’s air navigation bureau, told The Gazette in May that the rate of accidents is stable, but “that’s why we have a problem. As our traffic grows, we can expect these runway related accidents to grow as well, unless we act now.”

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Runway accidents are “the No. 1 killer in commercial aviation today,” she said.

Technologies are available that would curb their frequency, Burin said, including one that can read aircraft wheels when braking, translate that info into runway conditions and relay it to the world in real time.

He could not say why it hasn’t been adopted.

Another was developed by Airbus and tells pilots if they should do a go-round to land safely.

Airbus has offered the system to anyone willing to use it.

Denis Gordon, director of standards and procedures for AéroMag, a Ville St. Laurent firm that handles aircraft de-icing at airports in Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and Cleveland, among others, said that removing ice from a plane’s wings and fuselage was done with warm water until a 1989 accident in Dryden, Ont., that killed 28 people aboard a Fokker jet.

“Three years later, there was a nearly identical accident, except that this time, they waited too long between de-icing and takeoff.”

That gave birth to de-icing practices that are now standard at most of the world’s airports, Gordon said.

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