What’s Wrong With Landing on a Closed Runway?


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.