Lost on the Runway


Everyone has been lost at least once in their lives. For many of us, being lost usually happens while we’re driving. This typically only means that we’re getting to our destination a little later or perhaps having to stop and fire up our GPS to get turn-by-turn directions. For me, it meant finding myself on a runway at the same time that an airplane was touching down.

On Sept. 28, 2016, I was working in the VAW-116 line shack when a Seaman from a visiting E-2 squadron came over and asked to borrow the MSU-200 Air Start Unit (ASU). The visiting squadron was on detachment to Point Mugu, California from Norfolk, Virginia, and needed to borrow equipment from time to time. I checked the equipment out to the Seaman and began driving to the transient line area. Since they were visiting, I was unfamiliar with the location of the transient line area, and the Seaman had low situational awareness because he was unfamiliar with the airfield. This would have been a good time to double-check and ask questions about where to go, but everyone involved assumed that the other person knew where to go.
And you know what happens when you assume.

Without clarifying the best route to get there, we began driving and navigating to the transient ramp. While driving on what I thought was a taxiway, the hair on the back of my neck began to stand up and I looked around and saw the markings for a runway. The next thing I saw was a Hawkeye do a touch-and-go on the same piece of concrete I was on. Afraid for the lives of everyone on that piece of concrete, I put the pedal down and continued across the runway until we got to the transient ramp. We dropped off the equipment and I returned to the VAW-116 line shack, this time taking the appropriate route.

When I returned to the line shack, my leading petty officer (LPO) pulled me aside and informed me that I had, in fact, driven across an active runway. The tower had contacted VAW-116’s maintenance control desk and told them of the incident. For the second time that day my heart started racing; this time for fear of losing my job. I eventually sat down with my master chief and discussed how the event unfolded and what learning points we could pull from it. Some immediate actions involved me taking a flight line driver’s course as well as debriefing each shop about the incident.

Driving across an active runway has the potential to have fatal consequences; we were lucky that no one was hurt or any equipment damaged. The visiting squadron’s Seaman and I should have both taken time to acquaint ourselves with our surroundings and verified the appropriate route to take. Utilizing deliberate operational risk management (ORM) or simply asking ourselves “What is different?” would have greatly reduced the likelihood of this happening. We all receive yearly ORM training and sometimes it’s easy to gloss over the steps, but it’s times like these that highlight how important and relevant the process truly is to a safe evolution.

SN Mateo Diaz is assigned to VAW-116 Sun Kings located in Point Mugu.

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