How Spicy Is Your Runway?
- Advanced Aircrew Academy
If you enjoy eating spicy foods, you may remember ordering a particular dish and having the server ask how "hot" you would like it to be. This always creates a dilemma because "hot" is such a relative term and even though you may desire to find the level that is just hot enough for you, if you happen to choose poorly, it could derail the rest of your meal and even perhaps your happiness the morning after; so we may engage in an often fruitless conversation with the server about how "hot" is "hot," cross our fingers as we place our order, and hope for the best.
While this small analogy can be humorous, as aviation professionals, we sometimes face a similar dilemma when it comes to runway conditions. As winter approaches, this can be even more serious as we encounter contaminated runways in the form of ice, snow, and slush. Reporting conditions can be difficult and, often, a bit subjective. It is said a runway is contaminated if more than 25 percent of the runway surface area is covered with any form of dangerous precipitation including frost, ice, slush, snow, or water. But determining percentages isn't an exact science and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Take-off and Landing Performance Assessment (TALPA) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), along with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) are working together to supply us with a Global Reporting Format (GRF) in an attempt to standardize common terminology regarding runway conditions, as well as ensuring proper use of a Runway Condition Assessment Matrix (RCAM). The GRF also ties in the impact of the runway with the individual aircraft's unique performance, which helps the crew more accurately predict take-off or landing conditions and improve situational awareness of the operation as a whole.
Still, just as in our spicy food analogy, the best way to gauge danger is by listening to those who have come before us. A friend or partner who regularly eats spicy food with you may be better versed to warn you of what lies ahead if they have already tried that particular dish or heat level. They understand you and your individual needs and tolerances. So, too, may the pilots who take off or land before you be better indicators and reporters of runway conditions and how it might affect your flight. As weather conditions can be incredibly dynamic, we must not only pay particular attention to the reports of fellow aviators, we must also be those reporters ourselves.
Out of all high-risk accidents, runway excursions remain aviation's number one safety risk category. While we may see these in the summer due to standing water or tailwinds, at no time are we more in danger of these excursions than in winter flying conditions. With this in mind, we must continue to pay particular attention to reports, make our own reports as often as possible, and diligently employ the RCAM to keep everyone, including ourselves, safe. Because unlike underestimating the heat of a spicy dish, underestimating a runway can be the difference between life and death. Fly safe, fly smart, and start planning for winter operations NOW.