During a recent instrument competency check, my instructor and I were making our last approach of the day, an ILS to runway 4 of our home field. Since we had successfully completed the required hand-flown ILS at another airport, this one was to be flown by my Mooney Ovations autopilot.
The weather was clear, with light and variable winds at the surface. The plan was for me to demonstrate the transition from instruments with the autopilot flying to a full stop landing on runway 4. There was no reported traffic in the pattern at our uncontrolled home field. This was verified by another Mooney, which had just departed runway 22.
Everything worked as advertised and I reported our position and intent on unicom four miles out. This report was answered by an instructor in a Cessna 152 taxiing to runway 22 who again told us the pattern was clear and said he would hold short until after we landed and were clear before taking off on runway 22.
At DH I removed my hood, extended the remaining flaps and prepared to coax the Ovation onto the runway. I could see the 152 still taxiing to runway 22 and an Extra entering the runway from the midfield taxiway. Without any radio calls, the Extra turned onto runway 22 at midfield and commenced its takeoff roll. I was just entering the flare. The instructor in the 152 was yelling at the Extra on Unicom but it continued on a collision course with us.
I applied full power, bounced into the air, and headed toward the grass on the right side of the runway. Somehow the Ovation hung in the air just above the dirt and the Extra passed with what seemed inches between our wingtips. We were flying with stall horn blaring and somehow managed to climb and clean up the airplane. We returned to pattern altitude and landed on runway 22 pretty shook-up.
That evening, I reviewed the near miss with the Extra pilot on the telephone. His radio was inop. He saw the 152 taxiing to runway 22, which is much closer to the FBO and tie-down area. He checked the downwind and final for 22, saw nothing and decided to use the excellent takeoff performance of the Extra to make a midfield takeoff ahead of the 152. He never saw me.
Both of us made near-critical mistakes. You should never assume anything at uncontrolled airports. Although I reacted and it worked out, it was not because it was thought out. There is safety built into the common traffic pattern. Had I used it, this would have never happened.
Some other lessons to consider: Airplanes without radios are more common than many pilots think. Instrument pilots tend to take the redundancy in their airplanes for granted and assume all airplanes are at least as capable. As you discovered, no reported traffic is not the same as no traffic.
Decision Solid as a Rock?
My boss gave me the nickname Marrying Sam (a character in the Lil Abner comic strip) due to my several flights to Gibraltar ferrying prospective newlyweds. As a relatively new private pilot stationed in Francos Spain, I jumped at any chance to fly and Gibraltar was a fun destination.
At that time there were religious and political impediments for some couples to tie the knot in Spain. A trip to Gibraltar, a British colony, via highway and ferry took the better part of a day, while flying was less than two hours chock to chock.
The flight portion was relatively short, direct from Puerto de Santa Maria to Tangier, Morocco and then refiling direct to Gib. Due to Spanish airspace restrictions at the time, direct flight from Spain to Gibraltar was not possible. It was the ground time in Tangier that accounted for the majority of the trip.
This flight was somewhat different in that the bride was 8 months pregnant. Due to balmy low-level turbulence, I chose to fly the first leg at 7,500 msl to provide a smoother flight and lessen the possibility that I would need to clean the interior of the Piper Cherokee I was flying. The ceremony was hilarious given the circumstances of a pregnant bride with three previous marriages and a proper English civil servant performing the service who insisted on using all of the brides former surnames. (Do you the present Mary Brown, formerly Mary Smith, formerly Mary Jones, and the latter Mary White, take…) We were all in stitches with the bride holding her larger than life midsection while it shook from laughter.
The return flight consisted of reversing the route previously flown with another stop in Tangier before re-entering Spanish airspace. The VFR departure procedure from Gib was to hug the shoreline until past the famous profile of the Rock to avoid the Spanish Prohibited Airspace that partially encircled Gib and then fly westbound up the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier. Due to the short trip back to Tangier, I only climbed to an altitude of 1,500 msl. On course in the middle of the Straits, I noticed what appeared to be a vibration of the glare shield. Checking all needles in the green, I casually laid my left hand on the glare shield and, yep, it was vibrating.
Was this the automatic rough I had heard about when one flies over water or was there the real possibility of a catastrophic engine failure?
A quick assessment of my options led to only one choice. Since I was more than halfway to Tangier, I chose to continue on, knowing Id have to ditch close to shore should the engine fail. Approaching Tangier, all needles were still in the green but the vibrations were still there. I had not mentioned this problem to my passengers as there was nothing to be gained from alarming them and there would be time to brief them in the event of an emergency landing.
A non-event landing at Tangier brought some relief, but I knew that I still had to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and then fly about 50 nm back to our base. I decided that I would perform a full-power run up and double-check all systems before making a go/no-go decision.
In the back of my mind a litany of complications involving leaving the aircraft in Tangier and returning via ferry and car was doing battle with training that said to stay on the ground if youre not sure the airplane is airworthy. The full-power run-up produced full static RPM and all needles in the green with no obvious oil leaks or dangling parts. I made the decision to go.
Departure procedures for VFR flights from Tangier involved flying west out over the Atlantic at 400 feet while paralleling the inbound course for the main east/west runway. When Approach was sure that you would be well below the approach course of inbound jet traffic, they would turn you north to proceed on course.
When cleared to proceed on course, I applied climb power but the stall warning horn began blaring when the nose was raised to climb attitude. Full power gave me a 100-fpm climb.
By the time this chain of events had played out, we were more than halfway from Morocco to Spain. I elected to continue on toward Spain.
Once I stopped trying to climb, the airplane performed normally and the remaining portion of the flight was a non-event. Upon securing the aircraft at the flying club ramp, I placed the airplane in a down status, which, by club rules, could only be changed by a mechanic.
Additionally, I knew that a friend had the airplane scheduled the next day for a trip to Gibraltar so I called him and told him about my flight and that I had downed the aircraft.
The next day, our chief flight instructor performed a ground run up of the aircraft and pronounced it up for flight. My friend enjoyed a nice two-day vacation in Gibraltar, returning to Seville to clear Spanish customs and immigration.
Upon takeoff from Seville, he experienced catastrophic engine failure but was able to return and make an emergency landing at Seville. Inspection of the engine revealed that a valve head had broken off in the #1 cylinder and must have been rattling around since my flight. On his takeoff, it apparently found a vulnerable spot and, as they say, the rest is history.
I think my initial decision of continued flight to Tangier when the vibrations were discovered was correct since the engine was, by all indications in the cockpit, providing normal power and there were no alternative landing sites.
The decision to depart Tangier was a lot more fuzzy. We were obviously safe on the ground and there was obviously something causing the vibrations. The complications of returning to Spain via surface transportation involved an overnight stay in Tangier to catch the once-per-day ferry back to Spain then arranging for someone to pick us up at the ferry landing for the drive back to the base. With less than ideal telephone communications between Morocco and Spain, the logistics of such an arrangement would be a nightmare.
Additionally, since there was no FBO to provide repair services, a club mechanic would have to go to Tangier to attempt repairs. My go decision was made partially out of faith in the airplane to continue to provide normal operating performance, as the run up seemed to suggest, partially due to get-home-itis and partially because I didnt want to be tagged a wimp pilot by my club mates.
As my friends bad luck vividly points out, we were extremely lucky and my go decision was really stupid.