What is Backtrack?

by Captain Joe

Have you ever heard that expression; “We need to backtrack”?

What are they talking about?

Maybe you have experienced a backtrack on your last flight?

Okay I admit it´s fairly rare.

Imagine you land on little airport with no taxiways. There are some out there, trust me. So once the plane has landed it needs to taxi back to the terminal so that you can exit the aircraft. But how, without a taxiway?

The tower controller will say, “FlyJoe123, taxi to parking stand one two via”BACKTRACK” on the runway, and exit taxiway Alpha and Bravo”. So the pilot has to perform a 180 degrees turn on the active runway and then taxi back to the nearest runway exit.

So “BACK” for taxiing back the runway and “TRACK” cause the runway alignment is a track and not a heading. BACKTRACK!

At some airports the runway is to narrow for the turn, that they have installed turning area, mostly at the end of the runway with a taxi guideline so that the aircraft is clear of any obstacles whilst performing the 180 degree turn. Even aircraft manufactures have procedures published on how to perform the correct 180 degree turn, in order to avoid rolling off the turning pad with the landing gear and to prevent tire abrasion.

Unfortunately there are a few disadvantages with airports where backtracking is a common procedure. For example in this video you can see that we had to backtrack to end of the runway and turn around for take-off. During that time, the runway is blocked and other aircraft are unable to land or take-off. This can cause delays during approach as well as for take-off.

If the runway isn’t equipped with runway center line lights, backtracking during night operation and bad weather can be hazardous and take up even more time. Also, turning pads can be very slippery in heavy rain due to rubber abrasion and have to be approached with caution.

In countries like Africa, backtracking for take-off and after landing is a very common procedure, due to rare traffic,there is no need to build an extra taxiway. Also it’s an easy way to check the runway for debris and scare away animals which rest on the warm tarmac.

At the airport of Funchal on the island of Madeira, they had no other choice than using the backtrack procedure due to geographical environment. There is no space for a taxiway, obviously if you set up a airport on a volcano 🙂