Its easy to feel like you have a guardian angel when youre flying into an airport with a functioning control tower, especially one thats equipped with DBRITE and well-trained controllers. But there still is no substitute for peeled eyeballs and an awareness of what other airplanes are actually doing (as opposed to what theyre supposed to be doing).
Recently I was nearing a busy controlled airport just as controllers were switching from one runway to the opposite one. There were multiple airplanes on instrument approaches, several waiting to take off, a couple in the pattern and a few more approaching pattern entry. I was cleared to enter a right base for the new runway, but by the time I got close traffic in the pattern and on the ground prevented such an easy entry.
I was told to follow a Cessna on right downwind. I had the traffic in sight and slipped in behind it. A few airplanes finished their instrument approaches to the old runway, making low approaches. As the Cessna in front of me turned final, I started my base leg. Tower asked me to extend downwind a bit, giving me vectors that took me away from the airport, about halfway between a downwind heading and a base leg heading.
Just as I reached the extended runway centerline, I was told to turn final. I was about two miles out and just below pattern altitude. The controller threw me another curve ball. I was to offset my final approach to the left to let a Mooney take off in the opposite direction. No problem.
The Mooney pilot was instructed to make an immediate takeoff, warned of traffic on a two-mile final, and told to make a left turn to 360 as soon as possible after takeoff.
I began counting Mississippis. Fully 30 seconds later, the Mooney took the runway. I was a mile out. The Mooney rotated. The gear came up. The airplane stayed on runway heading. I was less than a half-mile out, lower than the Mooney, and engaging in slow flight. I was about to call for a go-around when the airplane passed abeam my position. I pushed the nose down to increase speed, cranked in two 90-degree turns to align myself with the runway and landed.
When the Mooney finally climbed above 700 feet, it made a lazy turn toward the north, but stopped short of its assigned heading. The controller came on frequency with a tone like a scolding parent. Mooney 123, turn left immediately heading 360. Thats 360. North. Traffic, 12 oclock, opposite direction, less than a mile.
A change of runways when traffic is busy is a complicated mission for ATC. The Mooney pilots head wasnt in the game. The controller considerately allowed the Mooney to take off into traffic instead of taxiing to the other end of the runway. The pilot should have responded by listening to instructions and promptly executing them.
ATC and PIC blend into a partnership. When ATC does its part, make sure you do yours.