Editor's Log

May 1999 Issue

You Talkin’ to Me?

You may not be looking for trouble, but it may be looking for you

Pilots feel pretty smug about themselves sometimes. When they’re masters of their machines and their sense of proficiency meshes perfectly with the proper caution, flying seems far from dangerous. It seems … ordinary.

But there are times when even the best pilots in the most familiar environments can find unexpected challenges when they least expect it.

Recently I was on board a single being flown by two very experienced pilots. Through a bit of test flying, some practice approaches and some touch and goes, it was obvious to me that these two veterans had the technique down cold. That thought, like sitting down while waiting for an elevator, only served to invite trouble.

The tower controller was very busy, and his rapid-fire instructions became punctuated with severe static that had me wondering for a few minutes why the new Bose X headset I was wearing carried such a hefty price tag. At first we thought it was a stuck mic aboard some noisy plane battering us with their decibels. The din was so great that, at one point, the controller transmitted our call sign three times before any of us heard it.

By the time we answered, the traffic he was calling about was about to pass behind us at a right angle. The Cessna came within about 1,000 feet horizontally and 200 feet vertically. At the time we were inbound on an ILS, although we were operating VFR, and the approach had the attention of the pilots up front.

During the course of the approach, I could sense the controller’s frustration mount as, time and again, he would have to call aircraft numerous times before they would respond. In busy airspace, the conditions for disaster were right.

We missed the approach and left the area. We headed to another airport, where communications were clear. After doing some instrument work there, we headed back to the scene of the near-crime. Again, as we approached, the static was intense. Finally, we asked the controller if someone had a stuck mic or if our radios might be malfunctioning.

“Neither one. There’s something on the final approach course that’s giving off that static. It’s been that way for a couple of weeks. We’ve got lots of people looking for the problem, but so far no luck,” he replied.

Here was a known radio problem at a very busy airport adjacent to Class B airspace, and yet it was not Notam’d or otherwise dealt with on any official level.

It should serve as a reminder for those pilots who comfortably operate within the system that many problems have nothing to do with you, your skills or your airplane. Fly as if there’s some vast conspiracy trying to bring you down, and your approach to flying will be, well, unimpeachable.

-Ken Ibold