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What's Wrong With Landing on a Closed Runway?

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Now that we've once again taken Sen. James Inhofe to task for landing on a closed runway last fall in Port Isabel, Texas, it's worth asking this question: What's so wrong with doing this in the first place? The simple answer is nothing at all, as long as no one is endangered and/ or complains. I think there's a right way and a wrong way to use a closed runway, when necessary, and I'll give you my spiel on what I think is the right way. You can offer yours.

After the Inhofe incident, I compared notes with a friend who had a run-in with the FAA over taking off on a closed runway. We had similar outcomes, but he got a visit from the FAA and I didn't. First my incident. This occurred about 15 years ago, when I was flying a lot of charters to Cape Cod and the islands. I was waiting at the run-up area at an uncontrolled field copying an IFR clearance. As I read it back, I looked up to see a Cessna 210 flash by in front of me with its gear up. Before I could reach the mic button to warn the pilot, he was already skidding.

Just as an aside, if you've never seen a gear-up landing up close, there are several things about it that are surprising. First, there were no sparks, just a little plume of broken plastic and wires from the antennas. Second, imagine how long you think the slide will be, cut that in half and it will still be shorter than you'd guess. I'd say that 210 stopped in less than 100 feet. Last, the shock factor: There were two people in the airplane and what seemed like several minutes passed before for the doors opened. The pilot, whom I knew casually, later told me he just couldn't fathom how or why the runway was six inches below his feet. Nonetheless, I was now presented with a crumped runway and passengers awaiting pickup in Nantucket. There was enough equipment and activity on the runway to make a takeoff questionable.

This happened on a weekend and the airport manager had to be summoned. When he arrived and after he got recovery operations started, I asked if he would object if I taxied down the runway a safe distance beyond the beached 210 for a takeoff. He ruminated on this for a moment and replied he would have no problem, but it would be at my risk. Technically, I didn't really have to ask. There's no FAR against taking off or landing on a closed runway or one occupied by a disabled airplane, as long as it's done safely. But frankly, I didn't want to get in anyone's face on a technicality and if he would have said no, I wouldn't have taken off. Airport managers and runway maintenance people can be territorial about their pavement and, honestly, if there's the slightest safety issue, I'll give them the courtesy. No trip is that important, even a charter.

My friend's experience was different. The runway was undergoing maintenance at one end, but there was room to take off in the remaining length. He also asked for permission, but when that was denied by the work crew, he took off anyway…carefully and with enough margin not to affect the repair work. The crew complained, contacted the FAA and my friend got a visit from a couple of inspectors. After an interview, they determined there was no careless and reckless behavior and thus no violation. End of story.

So what you have here is two approaches to the same problem. I know the FARs pretty well and knew I could take off legally no matter what the airport manager said. But I also know human nature and given a choice, I'll take a courteous solution over an edgy one that I know will ruffle feathers. It just makes more sense to me. Good citizen and all that. Airports have enough infantile feuds going on without starting more.

Having said that, I have landed on X'd runways several times. At uncontrolled airports, it's a non-issue. Just make sure the runway is safe and there's nobody on it who you could endanger or, yes, offend. At a towered airport, ATC can't legally refuse permission to land on or otherwise use a closed runway, but will say, "landing is at your own risk."

But then that's true of all landings, They just don't bother to tell you.

Comments (34)

Before you use a closed runway you better make very sure of the situation on that runway. Once the Xs
are put down there is no obligation or guarantee that any part of it is usable. Unmarked damage, debris, or construction material may be anywhere including access to the runway. Co-operation with the construction crew is a must to avoid the chance of a dump truck suddenly pulling out in front of you.

Posted by: Richard Montague | July 13, 2011 8:43 AM    Report this comment

Several runway around here have been closed over the years for various reasons. At one in particular my friend who had his aircraft hangared there got to know the construction crew and frequently used the closed runway and taxiway.

Key to your writing is the statement to be careful not to offend. Also you note the prevalence of infantile arguements at many airports. I have noted this in my area as well. In fact its so prevalent at the local uncontrolled airport that I chose to relocate to a controlled environment. I am able to operate in the controlled environment much more freely than at the uncontrolled airport. I simply have to ask and accept the risk prior to other than ordinary operations. Such as taking off and landing with a tailwind, taking off and landing on a taxiway, overhead approaches to land, taking off with wake turbulence, etc.. If the controller approves the action nothing is said.

I applaud Senator Inhofe for proposing the pilots bill of rights. I also understand his approach to his situation.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | July 13, 2011 9:21 AM    Report this comment

"Just as an aside, if you've never seen a gear-up landing up close, there are several things about it that are surprising."

When I was 14, I was working at an airport repainting runway numbers at the departure end of a runway occasionally used for landings. Because my right leg was in a cast at the time, I was doing this by sitting on a wooden crate. (I was determined about this regardless of my injury because my working hours were swapped for flying lessons.) As I was painting, I watched a Bonanza come in for landing with the gear up and I grabbed my crutches to try and wave him off -- to no avail. As the plane contacted the pavement, my focus shifted to how I was ever going to be able to get out of the way of this sliding projectile. As Paul says, I needn't have worried. The Bonanza only slid about 100 feet, and I had plenty of time to get to my feet with the crutches and make my way over to the embarrassed and distraught pilot.

Posted by: Robert Davison | July 13, 2011 4:47 PM    Report this comment

Watched a 210 do an inadvertant gearup at San Antonion International. It wasn't the slide that got me, it was the ensuing fire (!?!) and AMAZING response by CFR. Without any prior notification I bet the fire trucks were rolling within 1 minute. If I have a problem I know where I want to crash!

I wonder if you would invalidate your insurance if operating on or off a closed runway? One of those things where you're ok until you're not? Certainly if something bad happened you'd get hung with "careless and reckless" by both the Feds and insurance company, I bet.

Posted by: JIM MCCREERY AVIATION | July 13, 2011 5:29 PM    Report this comment

Both examples given here of closed runway procedures had the elements of courtesy, thoughtfulness, safety and consideration as primary focus. None of which Sen. Inhofe displayed in his actions. Even to this day, he uses distraction as a behavioral tool for a bill he may well know will not pass to help avoid facing himself. He is suddenly altruistic and helpful for fellow pilots, but his behavior on the field is the opposite?

It's really quite pathetic; 50 years flying, job as a US Senator, and unable to be honest with yourself. The only thing worse is defending people like him and not seeing his true character over the worldly accomplishments.

There's an old saying, 'trust no man in whose eyes you do not see yourself reflected as an equal.' Wonder if the frightened airport workers that day saw that in Inhofe's eyes.

Posted by: David Miller | July 13, 2011 6:16 PM    Report this comment

Dave, why would you say it's more courteous to ask the runway crew if they mind if you take off, and then when they say "no" determine it's safe and take off anyway?

It seems like Mr. Inahofe only left out the ask part which I don't see as relevant, courtesy-wise, if you aren't going to change your mind based on the answer anyway.

The thing is without video the p/o'd workers are always going to say he came within inches and the pilot is always going to say I had miles of room, perfectly safe and a plan for every contigency. Without video who knows. I don't see an iota of difference between Paul's friend and Mr. Inahofe (from where I sit without all the facts etc).

Paul did you friend have a plan to avoid the workers even if something happened on takeoff? (engine quit etc).

Posted by: BYRON WARD | July 14, 2011 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Many years ago I flew a DHC6-100 (Twin Ottter)for a 135 carrier in New England. One very cold early winter morning I was instructed to reposition ASAP from HYA to BDL in order to offer additional small package lift to UPS at BDL. HYA tower had not yet opened for the day, but airport ops personnel informed me that the field was "closed" due to snow removal in progress. All the snow removal equipment was on 6/24, the wind was from the NW, and the dry snow that covered 15/33 was well within the capabilities of the Twin Otter. I asked airport ops if I could depart on Rwy 33. Ops had no objection provided that I coordinated by radio with the snow removal equipment which I did, and subsequently made an uneventful departure. I do not remember if I checked, but I suspect the field was NOTAMed closed. I never heard another word from anybody but in a much later discussion with the Chief Pilot he told me he would not have authorized the takeoff if he had been asked.

Additional considerations: this was a Part 91 operation as I had an empty airplane and the company flight operations manual permitted Twin Otter takeoffs in up to 6 inches of dry snow. If I had freight aboard and was thus conducting a Part 135 operation I would still have departed under these circumstances. If the tower had been open I doubt that they would have allowed the takeoff.

Safe? In my opinion, as safe as any other flight operation that day.

Legal? I am not so sure.

Posted by: STEPHEN MCCLURE | July 14, 2011 9:02 AM    Report this comment

We should always ask, why the runway is closed? If for construction, then one should always talk to someone and at least give the work crews an opportunity to vacate (people if not equipment). However, often, I've found a runway closed merely because it is no longer being maintained. In my part of the world (Alaska), we land on all sorts of things that are not "maintained". On 31" bushwheels, I'm not too concerned if a crosswind runway has some heaves or cracks, or only has 1500' useable. I would feel completely free to land on it. Likewise, on a couple of occasions, I've landed on roads in remote areas. Obviously these would also qualify as "closed". (Lest I get flammed, let me emphasize that these were known stretches of road with no power lines, and by prearrangement, folks on the ground blocked the road for both landing and takeoff.)

The bottom line, though, it that where other folks are involved, courtesy and prudence dictate at least communicating with the affected parties. Was Inhofe so low on fuel that he couldn't have at least gotten on unicom and talked to someone?

A Bill of Rights might be a good idea, and certainly we need some enhancements to the Notam system, so that it's easier to wade through the pages of closed taxiways to find the few Notams that might actually pertain. However, having Inhofe lead this charge is kind of like having Jack Kavorkian be the poster boy for assisted suicide. Good cause -- wrong champion.

Posted by: LOU NATHANSON | July 14, 2011 11:44 AM    Report this comment

In the 70's I was at a fuel stop in my T-craft in Oklahoma. There would have been ~25+kt crosswind. The old guy fueling me said "Son, just start here, point it into the wind and take off across the ramp. You'll never get to the runway." I did. Courtesy and permission work wonders.

Posted by: Gregory Young | July 14, 2011 1:37 PM    Report this comment

B Noel, Here in Az there are several uncontrolled fields where jumpers are very common, Eloy being one. I used to practice landings there when training, but would always communicate on ctaf and avoid if they were jumping. And Notams were not always reliable! But I know some guys who would still practice touch and goes between their jumps, which I was told was perfectly legal but haven't verified myself. With other fields to choose from nearby it was a no brainer for me to fly to one of them for practice.

The Faa cleared Paul's friend for his calculated risk and that's fine with me. No, we have no video of Mr. Inhofe's landing,(yet?) but after reading the transcripts of his statements, I think his behavior was inexcusable. If Paul and others in the know say the Senate bill being proposed is a good one for pilots and aviation, I'll take their informed word for it and hope it passes. I wish Mr. Inhofe the best in his efforts, but am not impressed with his behavior as a, well, I'll use, pilot.

Posted by: David Miller | July 14, 2011 2:52 PM    Report this comment

Sure Dave, me driving home drunk from the bar is a calculated risk, too. My experience so far has been other people (the workers in this situation) are typically virulantly opposed to being involuntarily added to a calculated risk equation.

Courteous, legal, and safe are distinctly different measuring sticks. FAA found it meets legal. Safe we only have the pilots self-reported opinion, and second hand at that so I can't say. I sure can't see how it was courteous.

Having been on the recieving end of these shenanigans multiple times (really!), to me from the perspective of standing on the runway I have to treat it like riding a motorcycle...paranoid and defensive. I have no way of knowing if the guy landing / taking off even sees us at all, much less that he's carefully considered how to do this safely...you *have* to assume the guy is a yayhoo and trying to kill you. Here is one true life scenario

152 xxx: "taking off runway 28"
hapless workers "runway is closed, there are people and equipment on the runway. Do not takeoff"
152 xxx "say again?"
hapless workers "runway is closed. DO NOT TAKE OFF"
152 xxx "I can't understand you??....taking off"

Now, we're standing on the runway with equipment 1500 ft down from this dude. Close to sea level, summer day, a 152 should be able to clear you easily in that distance. Would you shrug and go back to work, or grab your stuff and run for the grass?

We ran. Safe and legal are debatable but courteous it ain't.

Posted by: BYRON WARD | July 14, 2011 3:45 PM    Report this comment

The "good" Congressman should have at least had issued to him a 60 day suspension and retraining in the 14 CFR 91.13 FAA regulations. His lack of regard for others should have brought him centure by his peers in Washington. But, then they have one eye closed and are blind in the other.
FAR 91.13 pertains to Careless and reckless operation.
No amount of rhetoric or rationalizing will ever
pass muster when an FAR is flagrantly violated or violated except in a declared emergency.
No justification exist to place others at risk in the operation of an aircraft.
Closed runway means closed runway....do not use...
end of arguement!

Posted by: Robert Cravey | July 14, 2011 4:02 PM    Report this comment

Dave, touch and goes at an airport with skydivers is both legal and okay. I've jumped at Eloy many times and the mix is fine. Same at Cross Keys, New Jersey, another busy DZ. Just fly the normal pattern and be predictable. The skydivers will fend for themselves.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 14, 2011 4:32 PM    Report this comment

You have the wrong 'hapless' poster to split hairs with, B. Not going down that road, drunk or not. Which in my state is illegal, btw. And just curious, why isn't courteous debatable? I can think of many examples where it too isn't defined in stone...Anyway, there may be variance to the degree I perceived the four traits I found lacking in Mr. Inhofe but present at some level in the two given examples, but avoiding the subject with this hair-splitting only distracts from the comparitive essence of the blog between the three incidents.

You have your own reasons for defending Inhofe, I respect that. But arguing definitions doesn't convince me of the value of your defense, only of its absent merit.

Posted by: David Miller | July 14, 2011 5:12 PM    Report this comment

OK thanks Paul. I'm not a nervous flier but always thought the jumpers had enough to worry about back then without some student banging around the pattern.

Posted by: David Miller | July 14, 2011 6:07 PM    Report this comment

Eh Dave I have no reason to defend Imahofe, and I'm not. I'm saying Paul's friend was equally d**kish. Paul's personal and Stephan's examples are completely different, they knew specifically why the runway was closed, everyone was in on the plan, and whatever risk (if any) they took was only to them.

To me that's completely different from trying to land or takeoff in an open space between people and equipment on a closed runway who either have no idea what you're up to, or are actively opposed to it. I'm just really surprised and disheartened that anyone thinks that's a good idea, much less courteous.

Posted by: BYRON WARD | July 14, 2011 9:56 PM    Report this comment

"Good cause -- wrong champion." Exactly.

Posted by: BRADLEY SPATZ | July 15, 2011 11:00 AM    Report this comment

My take comes from having worked at an airport that the runway was being repaved - some pilot landed after we headed home for the day and then departed as we were arriving the next morning. He/she wrecked the grading we'd done to get ready. So even if you don't see anything - and so far as you're concerned you didn't do anything you may really be messing something up. We found out later that the pilot didn't know what he had done to the project. It cost us (privately owned public use airport) a bunch of money, and put us behind schedule (I don't know the effects of what the senator did). The end result was that I lost money not being able to instruct because somebody felt they knew better and we didn't really need to close the runway.

Posted by: Dave Stock | July 15, 2011 10:29 PM    Report this comment

Many years ago, a friend and I went to a small rural town where he wanted to buy a used vehicle he had located on the Internet. I would drive his vehicle back home in return for being sole manipulator of the controls on the flight over. (My medical had expired.) Since he was the legal PIC, I had let him do the flight planning. As we arrived (with very full bladders) we discovered the airport was closed, and the only paved runway was under construction. The FBO answered the radio and alerted us to a grass strip used by ultralights. I dragged the strip of unknown length and determined we’d make it in before reaching the pavement (where the shoulders were missing, making a literal wall out of the concrete). We decided he’d make it out by himself on the same distance. I set the Champ on the first ten feet of grass – no issue. On departure, the other pilot was actually airborne in half the usable length. Ours was the only fuel the FBO sold that month, so he was happy. I’m still not sure what we did was entirely legal. The legal PIC should have seen the NOTAM about the closed runway and canceled the trip.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | July 15, 2011 10:48 PM    Report this comment

John, you are right. In my defense, I was--and am--trying to focus on the legislation, which is the important issue. Trying not to sweep the runway incident entirely under the rug, but I don't want to make it central, either.

You're also right about cleared to land. I've asked the Senator's office for the tape/transcript so I can elucidate the difference between cleared for the approach and cleared to land. They mean very different things. I knew I'd be asked about that and you're not the only one to raise it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 16, 2011 3:42 AM    Report this comment

"The simple answer is nothing at all"

What part of "closed" do you not understand? This is the kind of cavalier, I know better attitude that gives pilots a bad rep. The runway is closed for a reason that may not be evident as you fly by at 100 kts.

Posted by: R Boswell | July 16, 2011 7:01 PM    Report this comment

"IMHO, the Senator's comments don't pass the smell test."

Could not agree more! And this is an 11,000 hr pilot?

Posted by: R Boswell | July 16, 2011 7:10 PM    Report this comment

What was the big hoo-hoo a few years back that involved some guy who physically blocked a closed runway with his truck to prevent someone from taking off after being told not to?

As I recall the end result was an accident and a big lawsuit with the truck driver as defendant.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 16, 2011 10:35 PM    Report this comment

Paul, your podcast with Sen. Inhofe left you behind allowing the Senator from Oklahoma to add further spin to his landing on a closed runway at Port Isabel, TX. There was more time spent on his excuses and his fear of others than in explaining the featured “Pilot’s Bill Of Rights”. Despite that, I found the “Pilot’s Bill of Rights” as a good bill and hard to argue against. Further, I suggest that ASOS minute weather transmissions include NOTAMS as it would cover the gap that exists between the time the NOTAM is sent out to the time it is disseminated via the NOTAM system. On the ground, DUATS briefings include Runway, taxiway, ramp/apron, aerodrome, obstruction, airspace and service NOTAMS. It is very comprehensive report easily understood in plain language for beginning pilots or coded for advanced and professionals. I recommend it to my students and I use it before any flight it only takes a few minutes and they can be printed and carried on board.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 17, 2011 4:18 PM    Report this comment

What part of "closed" do you not understand? This is the kind of cavalier, I know better attitude that gives pilots a bad rep.

Nope. This is the "command" part of pilot in command. You are the sole determiner of whether the airplane can be landed safely on the pavement in question and you are responsible for the outcome. Absent any reasons to the contrary, an administrative-because-I-said-so isn't good enough to neutralize your PIC authority. Courtesy also counts. See above.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 17, 2011 6:11 PM    Report this comment

"You are the sole determiner of whether the airplane can be landed safely on the pavement in question "

Like I said, this is the kind of cavalier, I know better attitude that gives pilots a bad rep. An emergency may be handled a bit differently, but the runway/airport is closed for a reason and you need to accept this.

Like I said,

Posted by: R Boswell | July 18, 2011 1:36 PM    Report this comment

Well, R.B., Several of us arrived at Valdez, AK after a long flight and found a crew working at one end of the runway. NOTAMed? Honestly don't know, but no X-es, no one on Unicom. We all turned around and landed the other way. No one ever said anything.

Were we being cavalier? Should we have turned around and tried to find some other airport?

Horrified you may be but we felt we had done the most logical thing.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 18, 2011 8:04 PM    Report this comment

"Horrified you may be but we felt we had done the most logical thing."

Not enough info to be "horrified." Did you check the NOTAMS? If NOTAM'd closed, then I am horrified. If not, then it would seem that the runway was not closed and your actions were possibly reasonable. My concern is with those situations where the airport/runway is clearly indicated to be closed by NOTAM or markings, etc. In such as case, the pilot is arbitrarily overriding the decision of the airport authority/manager who may have good reason for the closure which is unknown to the pilot. That would be cavalier IMHO.

Posted by: R Boswell | July 19, 2011 9:07 PM    Report this comment

"Not enough info..."

Well, that's the point, isn't it? The info I furnished is all I had and all there is. So what's the decision? Land? Hope you have the fuel to find an alternate?

Sometimes the PIC has to make a command decision.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 20, 2011 6:25 PM    Report this comment

If the runway is clearly X'd, then I'd be certain ATC heard me saying the E-word beforehand.
This can't be done for fun, but if lives depended on it, then so be it.

Posted by: Dave Lang | July 21, 2011 7:28 PM    Report this comment

"The info I furnished is all I had and all there is."

If indeeed this is all the info available, then I would say that the runway was not closed. However, FAR's require you to have all available info. Was there a NOTAM that you did not check? How about a phone call to the airport manager? Responsible flight planning requitres that you have enough fuel to reach a reasonable alternate for the flight conditions. Suppose the acft ahead of you crashed and burned on the runway and you have insufficient fuel to reach an alternate runway? What now? Good piloting practice includes anticipating reasonable glitches that may ruin your day and having a plan B.

Posted by: R Boswell | July 24, 2011 3:35 PM    Report this comment

"If the runway is clearly X'd, then I'd be certain ATC heard me saying the E-word beforehand"

Agree. In a bona fide emergency, you do what is necessary. And with a visible "X" the runway is definitely closed.

Posted by: R Boswell | July 24, 2011 3:37 PM    Report this comment

What an idiot! This has to be the most stupid article I have ever read. Those closers are for your protection. Period. I'm an asphalt runway maintenance company. When I close a runway-stay off it. Let me give you a for instance. I will be paving a trench in northern ky in the next few months. That trench is only 4 ' wide. Can you see that from the sky? I don't think so. Try landing on it though.
Two yrs ago, I closed fishers island to repair patches. We had a small plane almost hit our crew. Just because you think it's safe, doesn't mean it is. That incident had debris flying at my crews heads and one was peppered w stone and grit. Stop being arrogant. You're flying thousands of pounds of responsibility. Grow up and act like big boys. This isn't about possessive behavior it's about common sense and responsibility for others

Posted by: Renee Mix | February 27, 2014 8:09 AM    Report this comment

This has to be the most stupid article I have ever read. Those closers are for your protection. Period. I'm an asphalt runway maintenance company. When I close a runway-stay off it. Let me give you a for instance. I will be paving a trench in northern ky in the next few months. That trench is only 4 ' wide. Can you see that from the sky? I don't think so. Try landing on it though.
Two yrs ago, I closed fishers island to repair patches. We had a small plane almost hit our crew. Just because you think it's safe, doesn't mean it is. That incident had debris flying at my crews heads and one was peppered w stone and grit. Stop being arrogant. You're flying thousands of pounds of responsibility. Grow up and act like big boys. This isn't about possessive behavior it's about common sense and responsibility for others

Posted by: Renee Mix | February 27, 2014 8:15 AM    Report this comment

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