Learning Experiences 12/03: Act First

Three fighters zoomed by on approach to the same runway. The tailpipes were glowing red and looked like they were 10 feet in diameter


I was assigned to a ship when I was in the Navy. I was interested in aviation and was working on a license through an aviation club at a local air force base. I had about 25 hours, 10 of which were solo.

I had been at sea for several weeks and had gone up to do some touch and goes at a local airport. I was returning to the air force base and was in contact with the tower. I was cleared into the pattern and was about to enter a right downwind from the west for a southerly runway.

Suddenly the tower controller told me to turn right 90 degrees immediately. The speed of the transmission the tone of the controllers voice indicated that immediate action was necessary. I turned sharply and immediately, before acknowledging the instruction.

As I was passing through about 45 degrees of the turn, a flight of three fighters passed, with the closest about 100 feet above and about 200 feet to the east of me. They zoomed by on approach to the same runway. The tailpipes were glowing red and looked like they were about 10 feet in diameter.

Obviously the tower controller had forgotten about me when he cleared them into the pattern. This was not a big surprise because the controller would often be confused by the slow speed of the flying club aircraft.

However, had I questioned the call or delayed the turn, I believe that I would have either been hit or upset by the wake turbulence or jet wash. I received instructions to continue the turn and circle even before I could acknowledge the first call.

As I came around to land, I must admit I was too surprised to be angry or scared. I put it down and got off the runway at the first turn. I thank my stars for the military training that taught me to act first.

Every time I approach a big airport dominated by airline traffic, I remain alert to the possibility of a similar error because the speed differentials can catch controllers off guard. Since my early experience, I have landed with a jet close behind in the pattern that landed about a hundred yards behind me. I think it would have hit me if I had not followed the controllers expedite off the runway instruction with a shot of power.

That was another time when I was happy that I had learned to execute first and communicate second.

Other lessons to consider: Such conflicts at towered fields are not necessarily uncommon. When monitoring the tower frequency, keep track of the traffic behind you and, if you get uncomfortable with the controllers sequencing, offer to extend downwind or make a 360 or whatever to give way to the closing traffic.


Chart Smarts
I fly a lot of practice instrument approaches in my local area using NOS charts. I keep the approach plates inside plastic folders in a loose leaf notebook and pull out the plates I need for the series of approaches Im planning to fly.

The weather in the San Diego area is mild but for those willing to get up early theres a great marine layer and occasionally fog to make life fun. Its been my habit to sort through my local torn out plates when the new approach plates come out and see if any have been up-dated by taking a look at the bottom right of the plate where it says original or Amdt x.

If the approach has been amended I look at the plate Im using and throw it away if a new plate has been issued. This worked until last Sunday when I was doing the GPS Rwy 9 approach to Ramona (RNM). This is an approach Ive done many times although it was Notamd to not allow landings on runway 9 at the completion of the approach.

On the Carif transition to AQSOC, the controller told me I was low and I looked on my plate, which called for 3,000 feet. I replied that I was at 3,000 and read the altimeter setting I was using. His startling reply was that his info called for 3,600 ft for this segment.

The plate I was using said it was original, so I figured I must have missed an amendment. I pulled out the current SoCal U.S. Terminal Procedures and looked up the plate. It was also labeled original and, sure enough, the controller was right – the plate called for 3,600 feet.

Now, this approach has always been pretty hairy, being very close to rocky clouds, so the higher segments make perfect sense. But it took a while to figure out how I could have two different original charts for the same approach.

The new original is titled RNAV GPS Rwy 9 and the old original was titled GPS Rwy 9. Live (hopefully) and learn. I will now check all the charts more carefully before assuming there is no update to the charts Im using.

Other lessons to consider: Updating plates remains an annoying ritual for instrument pilots. Users of government plates have the option not to update, but just to throw away the old book and use the new one. With some creative use of sticky notes, rubber bands and highlighters, thats our choice these days.


Hands Off! Or On?
My wife, who is a very good and concerned pilot, was taught to leave her hand on the landing gear selector switch from the time the airplane is airborne until the point where the airplane cannot land on the remaining runway. This proved to be a bad lesson.

While lifting off from the runway in our Commander, she established a positive rate of climb and raised the gear. Keeping her hand on the knob, she inadvertently selected gear down when the airplane hit a bump in the air. So the gear was in transit going up when it was selected down, then selected up while it was in transit going down. You see the problem.

After this experience, I say get your gear set where you want it and then keep your hands to yourself.

Other lessons to consider: Part of the problem here is that it can be aircraft dependent. Some airplanes incur more drag with the gear in transit than extended, and so it makes sense to leave the gear down until the airplane has had a chance to accelerate.

But you are right in that your hand does not belong on the gear switch during initial climb. It should be on the throttle quadrant, ensuring throttle, prop and mixture stay full forward and ready to chop the throttle should the need suddenly arise, as in a twin.


Where Do We Go From Here?
I was practicing touch and goes in the traffic pattern as a newly soloed pilot of a Cessna 150. I had maybe three or four hours as pilot in command when I embarked on this afternoon flight. As I climbed to pattern altitude, I encountered rough air – rough enough that I decided to come back in.

At my skill level, I had enough to worry about controlling the airplane, without trying to deal with conditions that would make it even more difficult for me to hold altitude, heading and airspeed.

Everything was going OK until I came abeam the numbers on downwind. The tower had cleared me for the option, then canceled my landing clearance and asked me to extend the downwind so an air tanker could depart.

Up to that point, my reference in pattern work had been the position of the runway relative to the wing strut. While extending my downwind, however, that reference was lost and I began to drift toward the extended runway centerline.

When I turned downwind to base, I realized that I was nearly on the extended centerline.

The lesson I learned was to select a distant ground reference point to fly toward rather than only using the runway for spacing reference. My instructor had told me that before, but it really stuck when I learned it first hand.

Other lessons to consider: Non-standard patterns throw lots of pilots for a loop. While using such things as wing struts is OK when youre learning, work on developing your perception of nearness to objects around you. It will pay dividends in the future.


TFR Surprise
I was on departure from Martinsburg, W.Va., on a clear morning around 11 a.m. Climbing through 3,000 feet in my Bonanza, I contacted Washington Center/Departure to pick up my IFR clearance to Providence, R.I. I was told to stand by.

After three minutes, I called again and was told to stand by. After a third call, I was told to contact Washington on another frequency. That controller shipped me off to yet another frequency.

Finally, this controller had time to get my clearance. All this time I had been climbing VFR to 8,500 feet to join my filed route to Providence.

After about five minutes, the controller came back and said I was radar contact and to turn right immediately to avoid the TFR in the area. I did have a fighter come to visit me afterwards, but I did not violate the TFR and was not cited.

I came awfully close to one that I did not even know was there, and I had checked Notams as part of what I consider a thorough preflight plan.

Had ATC gotten to me sooner than 12 minutes after my departure, this would never have come close to happening.


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