If you review the NTSB video below, you will see one of the worst disasters in aviation…. averted by a mere feet! This was the Air Canada flight that nearly landed on the parallel taxiway at SFO which would have taken out at least 3 waiting aircraft in the process. The response I have received from many pilots and non-pilots is “how could this happen” or “how could they have been so stupid.” I’m afraid neither of these questions are simple.
I’ve done the same thing. Many pilots have done something similar at some point. I was on a visual approach into Dallas (DFW) during the day with clear skies and a bit of haze. ATC changed our runway last minute from 18R which was what we expected to 13R and while the Captain was trying to get our FMS reprogrammed and change my localizer frequency, I disconnected the autopilot and lined up for the runway. About 5 miles out, I was cross-checking my instruments with the runway and I saw the localizer needle ever so slightly to my right. I knew something was amiss so I started straining to see the actual markings on the runway to make sure I was lined up correctly. Low and behold, about the 3 mile final mark I saw that I was slightly off because I was lined up with the [longer] taxiway that paralleled the runway! It didn’t take but a very slight correction to the right and I was correctly lined up with the runway AND my localizer. This really drove home a concept that I think all pilots should embrace. Add some course guidance. This includes both VFR AND IFR pilots.
The stakes can be just as high for you as a GA pilot lining up with the wrong runway or even worse, the wrong airport. Try these two options the next time you go flying. The first option will ensure you are precisely lined up with the runway while the second is a supplemental procedure just for getting yourself setup closely with the runway extended centerline (at the correct airport).
Use guidance from an approach | If you are setting up to land on a runway that has an approach attached to it (ILS, LPV, etc..), set the localizer frequency. For most pilots that use ForeFlight, this is pretty easy to get. Worst case, ask the tower, they will give it to you. Once you have the localizer frequency setup, just adjust your navigation head to the runway heading (MYF – 281, CRQ – 245, SEE – 269). This will give you supplemental guidance as you are headed toward the runway. If you have setup the correct frequency, when the needle moves right, so should you and vice versa. For IFR pilots, this will be very familiar. For VFR pilots, talk to an instructor if you have questions. It’s a great way to ensure you are right on track the entire way in.
Use guidance from your GPS | Using this method works well if you are establishing yourself on a long final and just want some additional guidance to extend your centerline. If the airport has parallel runways, use caution with this procedure as it will technically put you between these runways.
On your GPS, select Direct To, then select the airport BUT before activating it, there is a course field. The default of that field when you press Direct to is your present position direct to the airport (the Airport Reference Point to be precise). Change that course to the runway heading. For example, at Montgomery, I would select Direct to, after entering KMYF, I scroll to the Course field and change that to 281 and activate. That will extend the centerline of the runway waaaay out.
Alternatively, if you are already direct to the airport and as you get closer you want to extend the centerline, the procedure is equally simple. Press your OBS button on the GPS, turn the OBS to your runway heading. That’s it! Now you have an extended centerline and you can line yourself up on a straight-in with more precision than your counterparts that don’t read my newsletter at the same time impressing your friends and family with your flying prowess.
There are a few “gotchas” that you may experience with these methods (reverse sensing, out of service localizer, etc..) so I recommend getting with your instructor for a quick overview of these concepts. The goal here is simple. Prevent yourself from flying to the wrong airport at an unfamiliar location, more accurately line up with a runway that you are planning to land on and most important, avoid embarrassment (or worse) by keeping yourself lined up with the pavement that was meant for landing!