Automobile vs. aircraft: Aircraft always has the right of way

In this image, captured by the Heads Up Display (HUD) of a T-45 Goshawk taxiing out of the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 line, a vehicle is seen crossing the taxiway in front of the approaching aircraft.

Working onboard a naval air station presents unique road hazards, such as when drivers in their automobiles encounter pilots in their aircraft. Here’s all you need to know: Obey traffic signals. Stop and wait. The aircraft has the right of way. Always.

It would seem like an easy decision to bring a car to a complete stop until an aircraft safely clears the taxiway in front of it, yet there are drivers at NAS Patuxent River who either do not notice the red lights indicating a stop, or decide they can beat the aircraft across and proceed ahead in defiance.

“This year alone so far, we’ve had five incidents, with two of them just a few weeks apart,” said Cmdr. Michael Kirby, safety officer for Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20, and an active flyer. “There have been about 15 over the past five years or so, and that’s just from data at VX-20; and just incidents that are officially reported. Each squadron keeps its own records.”

A hotspot seems to be Taxiway Alpha, where aircraft frequently cross Cedar Point Road near Millstone Road, and where the red light to stop traffic is activated from the Air Traffic Control Tower at the request of pilots approaching the intersection.

“When we approach an active road on a taxiway, we call Ground [a position in the tower that controls all vehicles and aircraft moving on the taxiways] and tell them to turn on the red lights that signal traffic to hold from crossing the taxiway,” Kirby explained. “It’s like a four-way intersection. The lights are red for the aircraft until there’s sufficient time for the cars to stop; then when our light turns green, we’ll look both ways, and continue on.”

Kirby estimates that with the VX-1 and VX-20 hangars next to each other, there are at least 10 aircraft per day going out and coming back in, totaling 20 aircraft crossings at Taxiway Alpha throughout the workday.

Recent incidents occurring in September and October both involved vehicles running the red light when turning right off Millstone Road onto Cedar Point, heading toward Gate 2. That same incident also occurred in February.

“Maybe those drivers turning right don’t think they have to stop, but they do,” Kirby noted. “That red light applies to them also.”

Other incidents reported by aircrew include vehicles running the red light without stopping; vehicles pausing momentarily and then deciding to proceed ahead anyway, as close as 50-feet from the approaching aircraft; and even a vehicle that didn’t come to a stop until it was well into the taxiway, about three car lengths beyond the red light.

“What aircrew are supposed to do when there’s a light runner is contact Ground, give them a description of the vehicle, and tell them which direction it’s going, then Ground passes it on to base security who tries to find the vehicle,” Kirby said. “In some cases, the vehicle is close enough for the aircrew to get a license plate number and that info will be passed on.”

Safety first, for everyone

Kirby would like to remind all personnel that they are driving on an active Navy airfield and that it is their responsibility to pay attention and be aware of where they may interact with an aircraft on the roads; and always give way to that aircraft, not only for themselves, but for the sake of the pilot and aircrew aboard.

“An aircraft is very heavy and sometimes we’re loaded down to maximum weight,” said Kirby, who flies the P-8 Poseidon, what he describes as a militarized Boeing 737. “We can apply the brakes, but trying to curb that momentum puts personnel and equipment at risk. If there’s an engineer or aircrew in the back doing pre-flight checks where they don’t necessarily have to be strapped in and seated, a sudden stop can cause serious injury; or even worse, the aircraft can’t stop in time and hits the encroaching vehicle.”

Another spot with serious consequences is near the approach end of Runway 32, when an aircraft may be coming in from the water side to land. If an aircraft is approaching, wait for them to cross over the road before proceeding through the intersection.

“There have been aircraft on short final, coming in to land, when someone in a car decides they want to cut across and the aircraft has to wave off,” Kirby added. “That’s kind of a critical point as far as landing, and then to completely have to adjust your mindset to go to wave off, to add maximum thrust, and everything else that goes along with it, adds risk to the aircrew and aircraft.”

Any vehicle operator observed running a red light or flashing red lights will be subject to a fine, said Lt. Brendan Stratton, Pax River police officer.

“It’s a traffic violation that will result in a fine of $120 and one point against their driver’s license,” Stratton explained. “If it adds to an accident, the fine for running a red light is $200, a flashing red light is $150, and both add three points on their license.”

Kirby reiterated that Pax River pilots do not need the added risk and stress of worrying about vehicles they encounter.

“The risk involved in flying is enough as it is, especially with testing; we don’t need to be continuously looking left and right when crossing a roadway,” he said. “Or on a short final, when you’re trying to land an airplane, and you’re partially distracted making sure no cars decide to cut across at the last second. The aircrew doesn’t need that; we’re busy enough as it is.”