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Wrong-runway accidents happen with some regularity
Scripps Howard News Service


August 30, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The small private plane was about halfway down the runway in northern Ohio last month when the student pilot at the controls got an urgent radio call from her instructor.

The plane was taxiing down the wrong runway.

Panicked, the pilot tried to abort the takeoff, but the Cessna 172N ran off the end of the landing strip, struck a guardrail, nosed over and rolled 25 feet down an embankment.




Luckily, no one was seriously injured. But while wrong-runway accidents like the July 26 incident in Wadsworth, Ohio, may not be an everyday occurrence, they do happen with some regularity - and with sometimes-deadly results, according to government records and aviation experts.

"I wouldn't say they are common, but they are not unheard of," said Jim Burin, director of technical programs at the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit agency that works to improve aviation safety.

A graphic example of how deadly such accidents can be happened Sunday in Lexington, Ky., when 49 of 50 people aboard a Comair commuter jet died when the plane tried to take off on the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport and crashed in a nearby field.

Federal investigators are trying to determine how the pilots ended up on a short runway meant solely for small planes.

In the past five years the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated at least 34 accidents that have involved an airplane on a wrong runway, according to a database compiled by the agency. Nearly all of the accidents involved small private planes. Many involve planes that were landing or taking off.

On Sept. 20, 2005, for example, investigators reported that the pilot of a Piper PA-28-140 suffered minor injuries when she tried to land the plane on the wrong runway in Mount Ayr, Iowa. The plane overran the runway, causing its nose gear to break, its propeller to dig into the ground and the aircraft to come to an abrupt stop.

On June 9, 2004, the pilot of small experimental plane was killed when the aircraft hit the ground just short of the runway while landing at Cloverdale Municipal Airport at Cloverdale, Calif. Investigators concluded the pilot's selection of the wrong runway was a factor in the crash.

And on Oct. 20, 2002, the pilot and a passenger in a Piper Aerostar 601 were killed when the plane crashed into a canyon upon takeoff from Agua Dulce, Calif. Investigators determined that the pilot's selection of the wrong runway for takeoff contributed to the crash.

Burin said it is not surprising that many of the wrong-runway accidents involve small general-aviation planes.

"The airports they operate out of are normally smaller," Burin said. "They are less controlled. In fact, many times they are not controlled and so they would tend to not have as many safeguards in place - in other words, someone in the tower watching where they exactly go."

And general-aviation pilots tend to have less experience than commercial pilots, Burin said.

"The one advantage they would have over a commercial pilot is that most general-aviation pilots fly out of one airfield, and they are very familiar with it, whereas a commercial pilot flies out of different airfields," Burin said. "If you fly out of an airfield all of the time, you become familiar with it."

Wrong-runway accidents at larger airports are quite rare because there are safeguards in place, such as signage and lighting, to reduce the risk of such a crash, Burin said.

But, Burin added, "We've seen, unfortunately, they don't always prevent it from happening," referring to the Comair crash in Lexington.

Other examples of commercial planes involved in wrong-runway crashes:

- In November, 2000, a Singapore Airlines 747 bound for Los Angeles crashed and burned on takeoff from Taiwan's Taipei airport during a violent storm. It took off from a runway that had been closed for repairs and collided with construction equipment, claiming 81 lives.

- On Dec. 24, 1983, six people were injured when a Korean Air Lines DC-10 cargo jet taking off from Alaska's Anchorage International Airport crashed into a twin-engine commuter plane. Investigators said the Korean plane was trying to take off from the wrong runway when it hit the commuter aircraft, which was waiting on the ground for heavy fog to lift.


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