It could’ve been tragic

The chances are pretty good that some high-priced airline careers ended earlier this week when a Delta Airlines 767 landed on a taxiway at the airport in Atlanta, rather than on the runway.

The relatively small amount of coverage of the incident does not accurately reflect the seriousness of the incident.

“Runway incursions,” taxiing airliners straying onto runways, has been the #1 safety problem in the aviation business for several years. Imagine if one or two jets had been taxiing on the runway at the time.

But a news release this afternoon from the NTSB only adds to the head-scratching. It turns out a “check airman,” they’re the people who determine whether pilots are fit to fly, was on the flight:

According to preliminary information received from several sources, on Monday, October 19, 2009, at 6:05 a.m. EDT, a Boeing B767-332ER (N185DN) operating as Delta Air Lines flight 60 from Rio de Janeiro to Atlanta landed on taxiway M at ATL after being cleared to land on runway 27R. No injuries to any of the 182 passengers or 11 crewmembers were reported.

A check airman was on the flight deck along with the captain and first officer. During cruise flight, the check airman became ill and was relocated to the cabin for the remainder of the flight. A medical emergency was declared and the company was notified by the crew. A determination was made to land at the scheduled destination of ATL.

The flight was cleared to land on runway 27R but instead landed on taxiway M, which is situated immediately to the north and parallel to runway 27R. The runway lights for 27R

were illuminated; the localizer and approach lights for 27R were not turned on. Taxiway M was active but was clear of aircraft and ground vehicles at the time the aircraft landed. The wind was calm with 10 miles visibility. Night/dark conditions prevailed; twilight conditions began at about 7:20 a.m. EDT and the official sunrise was at 7:46 a.m. EDT.

Behind the scenes — that is, on airline pilot forums — the event has reopened an old wound that had barely scabbed over as regional airline pilots and their big-airline colleagues feud over who is the more professional.

  • Tyler

    Couldn’t taxiways be painted with diagonal stripes or something to differentiate them from runways?

  • Bob Collins

    Given the time this occurred — 6:05 a.m. — it’s highly unlikely this is a case of mistaking a taxiway for a runway. It would’ve been dark and taxiways are lighted with blue lights. Runways are lined with white lights and usually have blinking strobes and banks of green lights at the arrival end. It’s pretty hard to mistake the two.

  • Andy Ferron

    Yeah, taxiways have blue lights. If the runway lights are on, there’s definitely no mistaking the two. If they aren’t, or at a low intensity, I can see how the two could be confused from a distance. By the time you got close enough to see your error, it’s probably too late to make the adjustments to land on the runway rather than the taxiway, which are at least 300-500 feet apart — that’s a big gap to correct when you’re seconds away from landing.

    The real question is: If ATC cleared him to a VISUAL approach to 27R, why didn’t they bother to turn the lights on — especially if the pilot declared an emergency? Even if the ILS localizer or approach lights weren’t on, runway lights would be enough for the runway to be visible from at least 10 miles away.