When the tires squeak (or slam) onto the runway, many air travelers think the flight has ended. For pilots, an integral stage of the process still remains; one prone to confusion and with a notable risk for error. In From the Gate to the Runway, we discussed the confusion and hazards of taxiing at large airports, as well as the tools pilots have to assist them with the taxi process. In this post, we’ll cover taxi on the other end of the flight, once the plane has landed and is ready to unload.
Clearing the Active
After touching down and sufficiently slowing the airplane, the crew’s next objective is to exit the runway. Per air traffic regulations, only one aircraft (with limited exceptions) can be on an active runway at a time. However long a just-landed airplane remains on the runway, no other planes can use that runway to takeoff or land. At commercial airports, with hundreds of operations per hour, every second of delay can potentially clog an already congested aerodrome. Therefore, pilots look to minimize the time they remain on the runway after landing (without sacrificing safety).
To aid aircraft egress from the strip, major airports usually have high-speed taxiways next to the runways. These wide taxiways are constructed so they turn off at a gradual angle, thus permitting planes to exit the runway at a fairly high speed. High-speed turnoffs are so effective that controllers often instruct landing planes to “continue to the high-speed,” even though another turnoff may be nearer.
If no high-speed taxiway exists, pilots are (unless otherwise instructed) expected to turn off at the nearest taxiway (ahead of the airplane) once the aircraft is adequately slowed. While exiting the runway in a timely manner is favorable, pilots will delay if necessary in the interest of safety.
The Maze and the Aids
Upon exiting (“clearing” in aviation jargon) the runway, pilots contact ground control for taxi instructions. At this point, taxiing is essentially identical to the process discussed in From the Gate to the Runway, albeit in reverse order. The airport layout is oftentimes confusing, and pilots will utilize taxi diagrams, lights, signs, pavement markings, and ground control for assistance. As always, certain risks are inherent to the taxi phase, and your crewmembers follow established procedures to minimize these risks to the extent possible.
At the Ramp
Upon reaching the terminal ramp, most airliners are given one of two instructions: taxi to the gate or hold for a gate. When no gate is available, the plane will be directed to a ground holding area, commonly referred to as the “penalty box,” until a gate becomes available. Once a gate is ready, the crew will taxi to the directed gate to begin the parking process.
Parking the Bird
Parking an airliner requires a high degree of attention and planning. During this phase, ground tugs, conveyor belts, fuel trucks, baggage trams, food trucks (if you’re lucky), airstairs, and ground personnel might all be moving around near the jetway. Your pilots must ensure they don’t hit any of these moving targets while also controlling a multistory, megaton vehicle. In addition, airliners have lengthy wings protruding from both sides, another challenge to consider.
To aid with obstacle clearance, ground crews include wing walkers. Wing walkers don’t actually stroll along the airfoil, but rather advise (from the tarmac) the crew of the wings’ relation to nearby obstacles. For this, the wing walkers use hand signals, often with the aid of bright orange batons.
Once lined up with the parking tee, the crew proceeds slowly toward the signalman. Just imagine; a massive airliner can do some extensive damage if it accidentally taps the terminal, so pilots take every precaution to avoid such an outcome. Once signaled to stop, the Captain will set the brakes, shut down the engines, and review the parking checklist with the first officer.
Though a short flight segment, the final taxi phase consists of several essential factors. Your crew is well aware of each step’s importance, and thus doesn’t consider the flight over until they exit the aircraft. Next time you fly, think about your crew’s responsibilities during the taxi to the gate.