Editor's Log

October 2003 Issue




Rippling Surprise

When one pilot goofs, a mistake can cascade through the whole pattern

One of the keys for operating around airports – or any other time you come into close proximity with other airplanes – is to have some idea of what’s happening to you, what other airplanes are doing, and what you’re likely to do next.

When a pilot appears to be playing by a different set of rules, it can create a situation that ricochets far past that pilot’s immediate action.

I was in an Arrow approaching a Class D airport during a time there was a Cessna 172 making closed traffic, a Bonanza four miles out that had been cleared by the controller to make a straight-in approach. I was coming in on what I was told would be a two-mile base leg. There was also a helicopter warming up on the ramp.

As luck would have it, the Cessna and I approached the downwind-to-base turn almost simultaneously. The controller was talking to the helicopter as the other airplane and I converged. I was higher, and not yet in the pattern, so I gave way.

With the Cessna just in front of me, I started slowing the airplane down. I dropped flaps and gear, but my companion urged me to bring the gear back up because we were planning a test of the emergency extension system. I chopped power and turned out a hair to increase the distance between the Skyhawk and myself, and the controller came on to verify that I could increase separation.

I answered in the affirmative – we’d already doubled our distance – and the controller told me to follow the Skyhawk and cleared me to land, number 3 behind the Cessna. The Bonanza by now was on short final.

I didn’t follow the Cessna because, without warning, the Skyhawk broke into a 45- to 60-degree left bank. Keep in mind we were in a traffic pattern at about 700 feet over a city. The controller saw something was amiss. “Cessna 123, is that you making the turn over downtown?”

The pilot launched into a lengthy explanation of how he’d decided to make the turn because he wasn’t sure that I could follow and right now he was going to go west and extend the downwind.

The controller impatiently said, “All I asked was whether it was you. Yes or no.”

At that point, he cleared me to land No. 1 and the Skyhawk became No. 2. As I turned final, however, is was clear the controller had lost part of his mental picture. He cleared the helicopter for an immediate departure if the pilot could stay clear of the final approach course. The problem was, he used the last three numbers of my call sign when clearing the helicopter.

The helicopter, piloted by a relatively low-time helicopter pilot, did not reply to the clearance. The controller repeated, obviously exasperated, but this time got the number right.

As for the Skyhawk pilot, he may still be circling out there, for all I know.

-Ken Ibold