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December 17th, 2008

Tale of the Tire Marks

Night has fallen over Allentown, Pennsylvania. The pilot of a Cessna 172 and his two passengers approach the airport from the east. As they enter the traffic pattern, Allentown tower clears the Skyhawk to land on Runway 6.

With the Cessna on short final, a Mesa Air Regional Jet with 60 people on board chimes-in on the tower frequency, delcares itself ready for takeoff on the same runway, and is told to hold short.

Moments after the Skyhawk touches down, the CRJ is cleared to taxi into position and hold, and the Cessna is told to exit the runway at taxiway A4.

About 30-seconds later, the CRJ is cleared for take-off and controllers turn their attention to another aircraft approaching Allentown.

But moments later, the pilot of the Cessna comes back on the radio and tells the tower he has missed A4, and needs to exit at taxiway Bravo.

The CRJ is already charging down the runway, approaching 120 knots, near the point of no return, when the pilots suddenly realize something isn't right, yank back the throttles, and stand-up on their brakes.

"Cessna, no delay, turn immediately!" the controller barks across the frequency.

With the Cessna getting larger in their windscreen, the Mesa pilots quickly realize a collision is imminent. At the last moment, they veer the jet hard to the left. Passengers in the cabin grip their arm rests.

Tire marks from the actual incident; Copyright NTSB

And with tires squealing and brakes smoking, the CRJ overtakes the Cessna on the runway, missing it by just 10 feet.

"We got it tower," the CRJ crew says. "We're going to need to go back to the gate."

Disaster averted. But barely.

My guess is that the NTSB will find the tower controller at fault for clearing the CRJ to take-off before the Cessna had cleared the runway.

But upon further review, I'll argue that perhaps this whole situation could have been avoided by a more proficient pilot.

Taxiway A4 at Allentown is about 1,450 feet from the threshold of Runway 6. That's certainly not a long landing, but definitely not pushing the performance of this particular Cessna 172.

The book lists a landing roll of 520 feet for a 172K. But nobody is a test pilot, so double that number for a slightly high, no-wind approach, and add another 400 feet for misjudging a landing at night.

That's 1,440 feet. You still can make A4 without blowing a tire or melting the brakes. And perhaps the controller had seen other pilots make the turn off thousands of times before.

Let me be clear - the Cessna pilot shouldn't take the blame.

But had he made a point to fly to private pilot check-ride standards, like we all should on each flight, I wouldn't be writing this article.

It's true. No landing is the same. But the fundamentals don't change.

Do you agree? Article by Chris Archer; Send him an email

Read the NTSB Report on this incident by clicking here

This article is based on the NTSB's preliminary report of the incursion. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, or any aircraft or accessory.


Copyright Archer Bravo Aviation, Inc. 2006