July 2016

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by Tracy Thurman

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There have been a lot of runway incidents this season, mostly due to downwind operations. Runway acreage is prime real-estate and its limited and highly sought after. There’s only so much of it and it must be used wisely. Next to fuel exhaustion, a runway incidents has to be one of the most avoidable.

A 2400-foot runway won't grow any longer. If anything, it will shrink. Downwind operations will automatically reduce the runway length by a significant margin, depending on conditions such as temperature and wind velocity. That reduction will exceed safe operational limits very quickly. If you’re working from a nurse rig or loader truck, they could consume as much as 100 feet of runway, further reducing the usable length and compounding the likelihood of an accident.

A pilot needs to be ready and willing to make the direction swap before he ends up in the ditch or against a loader truck. It's almost like swallowing your pride to admit the weather has taken the upper hand. There is no airplane or pilot in the world that can out fly Mother Nature. We have to accept the fact we are subordinate to Her.

It takes more time to land and taxi back. Sometimes the runway is rough and it makes it more difficult. Ask the guy who had to make the call to the boss to tell him he can't finish job because he stood his half million dollar airplane on its nose. Which decision is easier... swap ends on the runway or risk swapping ends on the airplane? It takes a lot of effort and time to pull an airplane out of a ditch or to take an injured pilot to the hospital. Back taxiing takes only a couple minutes.

During the busy season, when we are making dozens of cycles per day, our take-offs and landings become incidental to the job. We tend to plunk the airplane down, swing it in, load it up, pour on the power and get gone again, almost as casual as going into a fast food restaurant drive through.

There are a lot of things going on in an ag plane during this time. Flying, the work has enough distractions and complications without adding marginal runway performance into the mix. I have enough to worry about accomplishing my job. So, I want my take offs and landings to be as least stressful as possible. If you find yourself bending the throttle lever over the forward stop and pulling the guts out of your engine on every take off or standing on the brakes and pulling full BETA on landings, it is probably time to consider cutting the load or changing runway directions.

Calculating take off and landing performance is a big part of the aeronautical decision making process. It’s a part of risk management and an important practice in keeping yourself and your airplane in one piece.

I know downwind operations are a common factor in this business, it is often times necessary and there are some runways that are strictly one-way operations because of obstacles or other considerations. An ag pilot needs to be proficient at landing and taking off with a tailwind. All too often, we either fail to recognize or ignore the fact conditions are exceeding our own capabilities and those of the machines we fly.

It doesn’t do any good to continue in downwind conditions waiting to see how bad things get before making the decision to reverse directions. You could have waited just one cycle too long.

Remember, the wind on the ground might be light, but at telephone pole height it could be blowing too much. This is important because that is where you will be in those critical moments immediately after takeoff or just before landing. It’s a good idea to watch the tops of the trees for a indicator before trying a marginal takeoff or landing.

Operators want to get things done in the least amount of time possible. Less fuel and less time equal more money in the bank. I don’t believe any operator worth his insurance premium is going to insist that a pilot push the limits of the safety envelope in order to shave off a few minutes. The pilot has the decision to make; it is his responsibility to bring the airplane and himself back in one piece at the end of the day. The pilot is the only brain inside the airplane. He is the only thinking portion of the package. He needs to be far enough ahead of the airplane and the conditions so he can plan accordingly and get the job done safely and efficiently.

Runway operations are a part of the process that has to be considered heavily and not be taken for granted. Make it easy on yourself whenever possible; pad the safety margins whenever there is an opportunity. You won’t impress anyone with your exemplary flying skills by tearing up an airplane or endangering your ground crew by pushing your luck with the wind.

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