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SHORT RUNWAY LEADS SOME AVIATORS ASTRAY

SHARE SHORT RUNWAY LEADS SOME AVIATORS ASTRAY

Five times since 1992, airline pilots at Salt Lake International Airport became confused and mistakenly took off using a short runway designed for small aircraft.

The most recent case, 11/2 weeks ago, involved a Swearingen Metroliner 3, and before that a Southwest flight pilot made the same mistake on Nov. 12.Regional Federal Aviation Administration officials met Thursday in Seattle to recommend ways to prevent further incidents at the Salt Lake airport. They concluded, aside from physical modifications already in place, that air-traffic controllers would verbally remind pilots using the V-shaped runway intersection of their bearings.

Complaining of too many lights and confusing ground-direction guides, pilots in each instance were cleared on the northbound runway 35, but instead veered left using the shorter, northwesterly runway 32, said Victor White, director of Airport Operations.

All five incidents occurred during cool weather and at night. Were the same thing to happen on a hot, dry day, the potential for disaster increases. Runway 32, measuring only 4,700 feet, was specifically designed for commuter and generally smaller aircraft, White said. On a hot day, aircraft need more room to take off.

"That's a potential factor that could cause a disaster if it came to that," FAA spokesman Mitch Bark-er said. "Potentially, it could be a problem. In these cases, it has not been."

FAA officials are also concerned that by mistakenly taking off using the diagonal runway, the pilot flies over the Delta hangar and also puts the aircraft in conflict with traffic using the north-south runway to the west.

"If it were to happen . . . the controllers, that's what they're there for," Barker said. "We would depend on them to avoid any conflict."

After almost every incident, airport officials have moved signs and clarified ground directions in an attempt to clear up the problem.

"We've probably made over the last year three separate sets of changes to the directional materials," White said.

"At the moment, it doesn't appear much more can be done in the way of physical changes," Barker said. Once the new runway already under construction at the airport is finished, the diagonal runway 32 will be used exclusively as a taxiway, he said.

The confusion became apparent in November 1992 when a Delta 727 used the short runway. It happened again March 9, 1993, with a Delta 727 owned by Federal Express. The Southwest flight took off Nov. 12 mistakenly using runway 32. Two weeks later, the Metroliner operated by Berry Aviation of Austin, Texas, had the same problem.

The FAA investigated the first three incidents and issued a warning letter to the pilots. The November incidents remain under investigation, Barker said.