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Pilot Decision Making


Lindell Wilson, WVFC CFI

Expect the Unexpected!

Today was an average busy Sunday at PAO with several aircraft waiting in the 31 run-up area for takeoff. While waiting, I noticed that many pilots when cleared for takeoff would take a quick look at the runway 31 approach to verify that no aircraft was landing. This is especially important at non-towered airports, but is also a good practice at tower controlled airports. My flight instructor (and hopefully yours) instilled the habit of “look BOTH WAYS before taxing onto the runway”.

Now the story…. Several years ago, I took a friend to Charles Schulz – Sonoma County Airport (STS) where we had a great lunch. We returned to the aircraft for our preflight walk around and I noticed numerous aircraft in the pattern overhead. We listened to the ATIS, and then called STS ground for taxi. The wind favored runway 19, and we received instructions to taxi from terminal parking via taxiway B, then right on taxiway Y to runway 19. The run-up area is located adjacent to the approach end of both runways 14 and 19. STS is unusual because runways 14 and 19 actually intersect at the runway threshold. Our run-up was complete, so I requested takeoff on runway 19 for a straight-out back to SQL. The tower controller cleared us to cross runway 14 and cleared us for takeoff on runway 19.  As I approached runway 14, I took a quick look both ways, but particularly at the approach to 14 for possible landing traffic. No traffic! Then I looked further to my right to look for traffic landing runway 19. I suddenly noticed a Cessna on short final (300 feet out) for runway 19. I immediately stopped on the hold bars for 14/19 and was about to press the mic button to contact the tower, when the tower control shouted “GO-AROUND Cessna xyz…!!!”. The Cessna quickly executed a go-around. I asked myself, what just happened?

The tower controller was obviously steaming MAD, and the story unfolded.  Apparently the Cessna had been cleared to land runway 19 immediately prior to my call to the tower for a runway 19 takeoff clearance. The tower controller, who was trying to space landing and takeoff traffic, had given the Cessna clearance to land runway 19 and had advised the Cessna that there was one departure (us) runway 19. Why was the controller fired-up? The Cessna decided to make a very short approach to runway 19 and did not advise the tower. The controller had assumed that the Cessna would make a normal size pattern and approach.

Many years of looking both ways before taxing onto the runway finally saved my bacon…)

Expect the Unexpected!