In low visibility, such as at night, as the sun dawns in a misty morning, or as the sunsets, flight crew members can visually mistake ramps, taxiways, parking lots and other places for the approach areas to the landing runway. Visually, this can pose an unexpected challenge to commercial flights.
Here is an actual account from one flight. One cloudy and shadowy late afternoon, I sat as PM with a great international captain as PF, momentarily became mis-directed by several flashing yellow lights on ground support vehicles. Just at this moment of time, while the PF was transitioning his/her gaze from inside to outside, and these three lights were lined up perfectly in a slight right arc. This arc just happened to be very similar to the white right arcing lead in-lights to an old and famous Pac-rim coastal international airport and this distraction occurred at the end of a 10 1/2 hour flight and a 12 hour duty day.
As the pilot-monitoring, I’d fortunately by procedure had the chance to be looking outside long enough to have already picked up the actual runway. The runway was another 45 degrees to the right, in our right banked 90 degree turn to final. I saw the captains eyes lock onto the point of the three flashing yellow lights and noted his/her confusion that there was no runway to be seen and understood this momentary confusion.
Without a word, I tapped him/her on the shoulder and pointed to the right. The captain quickly corrected the visual gaze to the right and moments later, we completed an uneventful 10 1/2 hour flight, in the shadows of a summer sunset, with a smooth touchdown. Great captain, yet easily distracted by an optical illusion.
On another flight, while looking directly into a misty sunrise lined up with the east/west runway, the morning mist became almost impenetrable. So when the pilot flying lined up on the bold black asphalt taxiway, out of a right 180 approach circling turn and not the concrete runway, which, by lack of contrast with the surrounding runway environment, had literally become camouflaged by the mist, I was not surprised. “Go around,” seemed wise, as we were both fatigued by a long night of flying. A salvage at that point would have been possible, I suppose, but unwise, so “Go around,” is what I said. The second approach and the landing by this great first officer PF was perfect. The explanation to tower was that we’d lost visual on the runway in the sun.
On another occasion, while breaking out of a stormy night overcast at the end of a seven hour international flight, the first few white lights we saw, just happened to be lined up in a row and had red flashing lights atop. This image looked like something near or around an airport, but in a moment I realized it wasn’t the runway environment at all. The lights were those of a nearby athletic stadium parking lot.
Just a moment’s distraction can be very difficult to recover from when things are happening fast. Fortunately for us, in another moment we had the real runway environment in sight and we landed safely.
So how did this pilot avoid landing on the wrong runway during 43 years of flying?
I would champion communications. Yes, simply good and ongoing and free-from-restrictions communications between the PF and the PM.
1. Brief what to expect during the approach brief: various lights, configurations, markings and signage around the runway environment.
2. Always, always, always tune up the ILS to the cleared runway, just to have good glide slope and the localizer support. This is free and invaluable. Never bypass this step.
3. Double check and brief magnetic headings. Many runway configurations at large aerodromes can be confusing especially if you are doing a circling approach.
4. Keep talking during the approach with the flight crew; give everyone a chance to say what they are thinking. You’ll be surprised what golden nuggets can save your bacon.
5. Use the electronic magic, but only as a tool, not as a crutch. Plan also what to do in the event that you loose all electrics. Know what to do. It’ll save you once or twice in 40 years of flying.
6. Most of all remember to communicate with your crew, with ATC and your inner gut feelings. When everything is lined up right, you will know. If you are at all confused, say something, ask the PM or ask tower if you are lined up correctly. It costs nothing to ask.
7. Trust your instruments, not because they are electronic, but because you’ve set them up right, you’ve cross checked them, you’ve gotten a good audio Morse-code ID check. Trust the maps, both paper and electronic, and that they are all line up with what you are seeing outside.
8. Lastly, if you see something out of place, say something! You might be the only member of the crew, who at that point in time, has the correct picture. Ensuring your flight does not line up to land on a taxiway.