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Jet Nearly Takes Off From Wrong Runway At Las Vegas International

All In Aviation / Paul Sallach

It seems like a nearly impossible situation: taking off from the wrong runway. And in most cases, at most airports, it is.

But at almost every towered airport, as well as countless non-towered airports, there's at least one spot on the field that can cause confusion - a hot spot.

Watch For The Hot Spots

The FAA publishes hot spots on airport diagrams. They're the areas on the field that are complex or confusing. Typically, they're a taxiway/taxiway or taxiway/runway intersection, and on airport diagrams, they're marked in brown.

Confusing airport layouts, combined with an unclear or confusing communication between a pilot and controller, can lead to problems. Like what happened to a corporate jet crew at Las Vegas International in May, 2017.

Here's what happened, according to the captain of the flight:

A Rushed Taxi To The Wrong Runway

We requested taxi clearance and were given instructions to proceed to Runway 7L via taxiway H and monitor tower only. Las Vegas tower called us and told us to hurry up and taxi faster to the hold short line because we were going to get an immediate departure. Approaching the line of hold short we got cleared into position and as we were taxiing tower said "DO YOU SEE THE 737 TAKING OFF FROM YOUR LEFT?" and we responded "NOT AT THIS TIME." There was some confusion and he cleared us for takeoff. As we lined up with the runway we got rushed by the controller and realized we overturned and were facing runway 1L. We realized this immediately as well as the airplane showed us the same on our Primary Flight Display and simultaneously tower called and said "STOP TURN OFF THE RUNWAY ON TAXIWAY BRAVO IMMEDIATELY."

We did as instructed and without any harm got re-cleared for takeoff on runway 7L again.

There is a hot spot #4 at this intersection of runway 1L & 7L that makes it difficult to spot which runway you are ON because there are displaced thresholds. This coupled with the controller urgency for us to hurry confused us while taxiing and doing our pre-takeoff checklist.

How It Happened

There were several factors at play in this taxi/takeoff sequence.

First, the crew had a short taxi from the ramp to the runway.

With a short taxi in a jet, crews face the challenge of completing their pre-takeoff checklists in an unusually short time frame.

On top of the already-short taxi, tower asked the crew to expedite, so they could be cleared for an immediate takeoff. There's nothing wrong with what tower requested, and it's a common request no matter where you fly. But tower's expedite request unknowingly started to compound the problem.

A short taxi became even shorter, and the crew became rushed as they approached the runway.

Las Vegas Hot Spot 4

As the crew was cleared to enter the runway, they also entered one of the biggest problem areas at KLAS: hot spot 4.

Hot spot 4 is a problem area, because two runways, 1L and 7L (which in August 2017 was renamed 8L), have overlapping displaced thresholds.

On top of that, when the runway was designated "7L", the "1" and "7" runway numbers looked similar at first glance.

Google Maps
All In Aviation / Paul Sallach

Taxiing into position for 7L, it's not immediately clear which runway you're on. When you taxi on to the displaced threshold, the runway numbers are nearly 2,000 feet from the runway entrance point at taxiway Hotel.

Add in the confusion between the crew and tower about a departing 737 the crew couldn't see, and it's easy to see how lining up with the wrong runway happened.

Fortunately, the flight crew and ATC spotted the problem right away, and the aircraft taxied off the runway without any problems.

Avoiding Hot Spot Confusion

Often times, taxiing can be more challenging than being airborne.

To help avoid problems, brief the route (and hotspots you'll cross) when you get a taxi clearance, and do it before your wheels move.

You don't need another pilot sitting beside you to brief the taxi route. Reciting the route to yourself, and tracing your taxi route with your finger over the airport diagram, is one of the best ways to make sure you don't get confused or lost during the taxi.

If you carry an EFB, or if you have a moving-map display on your flight panel, zoom in so you can monitor your position on the airport. It's one of the single-best ways to keep an eye on your location as you're headed to (or from) the runway.

Next up: rushing. Often times during a taxi, ground or tower will ask you to expedite. They're trying to be helpful, avoiding a delay in takeoff. But if you start feeling rushed or confused, the best thing you can do is slow down, and ask for clarification.

It's easy to feel pressured to keep moving on the ground, and it can be even harder to say "unable" to ATC.

But if you ever start feeling rushed or confused (and we've all been there at some point), the best thing you can do is slow down and clarify with ATC, before the problem becomes much worse.

Finally, when you're on the runway and cleared for takeoff, take one last look at the runway number and your heading indicator, and make sure they match your takeoff clearance. It's your last chance to make sure you're on the right runway before you throttle up and start rolling.

Boldmethod

Do you have a hot spot at your home airport? (View a list of all FAA.gov hot spots here.) Tell us about it in the comments below.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at colin@boldmethod.com.

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