It was pitch-black and raining hard--Typhoon Xangsane was moving into northern Taiwan. The pilot of Singapore Airlines Flight 006 turned onto runway 05R at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in Taipei and advanced the throttles on the Boeing 747-400. The airplane began rolling in the blinding rain. Then the pilot suddenly cried out, "Something there!" and pulled back hard on the yoke to hop over the object. But the plane plowed into a barricade at a speed estimated at up to 163 miles per hour. It disintegrated and erupted into flames. Of the 179 people on board, 83 perished.
The October 31 tragedy happened because the pilot had been cleared to take off from runway 05L, not runway 05R, which had construction equipment on it. In the previous 10 years, 63 people died in such "runway incursions." As airports grow busier, that number is expected to rise substantially. The past five years have already seen a 60 percent increase in incursions. In 1999 airlines reported 321 incidents, and in 2000 they had logged 403 incidents by early December. A study released last November found that, in the U.S. alone, the next two decades could see 700 to 800 deaths and 200 injuries from runway collisions if nothing is done to improve safety.
In light of the hazards, the Federal Aviation Administration developed ASDE-3 (Airport Surface Detection Equipment, version 3), which it has installed at the 34 busiest U.S. airports. ASDE-3 is essentially a ground-based radar that detects a vehicle, calculates its intended path, and broadcasts the information onto the air-traffic controller's radar screen. The controller then must radio instructions to the vehicle. "Our big effort is in heightened awareness for controllers and pilots," says William Shumann, an FAA spokesperson. The FAA has also begun installing an enhancement to ASDE-3 called AMASS, for Airport Movement Area Safety System, which provides the controller with an aural and visual alert. The early version of AMASS gave frequent false alarms whenever pilots approached a runway "hold" line. "But," Shumann states, "we restructured the program in the summer of 1999" to eliminate those problems.
This article was originally published with the title Collision Decision.