ANALYSIS: American Eagle ends up ‘Stuck in the Mud’ in Columbia, MO

(source: tweet by Courtny Jodon   @CourtnyKRCG13)

(source: tweet by Courtny Jodon @CourtnyKRCG13)

20150404.. KCOU mishap, left main gear in soft grassThe images indicate a simple pilot error, not unlike what can happen to us with our cars, if we misjudge our turn and sideswipe a curb or another vehicle while parking.

METAR shows winds were from the SSW at 10mph, so ATC would have issued a taxi clearance for a Runway 20 departure.

20150404scp.. KCOU mishap, RWY20 area SATview marked-up

Orange diamond shows mishap location, blocking both runways. Green curved line shows turn; green arrow was intended takeoff roll.

To get there, the pilot evidently used a short segment of Runway 13, then started a left turn to line up for the full length of Runway 20. This is good practice, as it maximizes runway length, improving the safety margin while also minimizing takeoff noise impact on nearby communities. Unfortunately for this flight crew, they misjudged the turning radius of their passenger jet; their attempt to get an extra hundred feet of takeoff distance ended up with a left main gear stuck in muddy grass. The runway is 150-feet wide, so they had plenty of room to do the turn correctly. They just turned too soon.

(click on image to view the airport webpage)

(screencap of the webpage notice by the airport authority. Click on image to view the airport webpage)

What makes this story more interesting is how the airport authority and the media whitewashed the mistake. The airport authority phrased the incident as ‘dropping a wheel’. The local media, which of course got their information from the airport authority, ran a headline that read ‘Plane slides off tarmac at Columbia Regional’. Um, nothing was dropped and nothing slid; this was a simple matter of cutting a left turn too soon, failing to account for the fact your main gear is half a plane-length behind you. As noted earlier, we do the same thing driving a car, even more likely if we are driving something long like a bus, or pulling a trailer.

The ‘Larger Story’ about KCOU

Sometimes a news story has more value for revealing a larger issue than for the minor news event itself. The news story can inadvertently shine a light into an area not thought about by the average person. This may be the case with this story.

Columbia, MO (locally known as ‘COMO’) is a progressive college town in central Missouri, home of the University of Missouri. The town’s airport is notable not just as the regional airport, but also for its extraordinary level of federal subsidy. In 2014, [KCOU] had 20,958 airport operations, thus averaged 29 takeoffs per day. ATC services are provided by a federal contract control tower, with controllers handling just two takeoffs per hour. The airport is relatively large, at 1,538 acres, and averages $2.5 million annually in FAA grant monies for maintenance and further development. Passengers (who pay the flight taxes FAA grants each year) have no choices at this airport. American Airlines is the only commercial carrier, with four total departures each day, two each feeding passengers to their super-hubs at O’Hare and DFW.

There is certainly a need for passenger air service in Columbia, MO. The airport is an asset. But, in a more rational national airspace system, this airport would not be as large as it is, nor as heavily subsidized. KCOU would be just as safe if it was much smaller (even down to just 200 acres), had no tower (saving roughly $600K/year), and received far less or even zero grant monies. The fact is, these subsidies primarily serve the industry (…just one airline (American) and one large tower contractor), the politicians (…who ‘bring home the bacon’ to get reelected), and the regulators (…especially the FAA retirees who supplement their retirement pensions by becoming ATC contractors).