Predictable in Chaos

There was a crowd of spectators on the ramp and adjacent to the runway. I was still not fully aware of all the aircraft around the airport and their locations


While flying daytime VFR with ATC flight following, I was 10 miles from a rural, non-towered airport where I intended to land. This airport just happens to be slightly more than 50 nm from my home airport and is a frequent location for cross-country flight training. ATC cleared me to the airport with a frequency change to advisory frequency approved, squawk VFR and no aircraft identified between you and the airport.

I announced my position and intentions on the CTAF and immediately there was a flurry of chatter on the CTAF asking where I was located and my heading. Several other pilots began talking with each other on CTAF asking if they had a visual on the plane approaching the airport.

Now within 3 nm of the airport, I decided to over-fly the airport at 1000 feet above the pattern attitude to get a visual on what was going on around the airport and better identify the location of all the other aircraft that appeared to be in the pattern or vicinity. Only after entering the pattern did it become apparent that there was a crowd of spectators on the ramp and adjacent to the runway. I was still not fully aware of all the aircraft around the airport and their locations.

After entering the downwind pattern I noted two aircraft passing immediately above and away from me in tight formation. I did not note any Xs on the runway indicating a closed runway for an air show or for aerobatics. I had to decide quickly whether to depart the pattern and immediately move away from the airport or to maintain what would be clearly a downwind, base and final to the runway. Not knowing the location of the other aircraft I announced that I had entered the pattern downwind and was planning a touch and go.

Someone on the ground announced to the aircraft in the vicinity of the airport that it appeared the aircraft was entering the pattern for a landing. Even though I had clearly identified my intentions there was still a degree of confusion between myself, the other pilots in the areas and the individuals on the ground. Upon entering final for the runway I was queried by a pilot about my intentions and I quickly indicated I would be doing a touch and go and departing southwest away from the airport. He indicated they would hold south of the airport until I was clear of the pattern.

Immediately after I departed, the two aircraft passed behind me and over the airport in tight formation. Upon reestablishing contact with ATC I told them I was aware of the two aircraft passing immediately behind me. ATC stated they also had noted them but ask no other questions of me.

I learned several lessons in this situation. While I would have not normally continued flying into an unknown airport situation, I felt I would improve the odds if I proceeded do what would be expected. This was to over fly the airport identifying my location and altitude, proceeding into the known traffic pattern and executing a landing or touch and go.

Fortunately identifying my location to the other aircraft at this non-towered airport bought me time to determine where the other aircraft were located. It also gave me a logical direction to depart the airport in a safe manner where the other aircraft would be aware of my location.

This was not a time to cut corners or to immediately depart the airport without clearly knowing where other pilot colleagues were at that moment. Obviously if I had been further away from the airport I would have immediately departed the area. But being in the situation I decided to be as predictable as possible.


Hands to Yourself
My wife, who is a very good and concerned pilot, was taught to leave her hand on the gear selector knob during takeoff until the point where the airplane cannot land on the remaining runway, then raise the gear and proceed with the climb.

This proved to be a bad lesson. While taking off in our Commander, she had her hand on the gear knob when the airplane hit a pocket of bumpy air. The plane went up, her hand went down. The gear was in the process of going up, but reversed direction. Realizing the problem, she raised the knob again, reversing the gear again. You can see the problem.

I say get your gear set where you need it and keep your hands to yourself.


Fit to Be Tied
Like many airplane owners, I installed a new intercom with an auxiliary music input in my Beech Sierra. I often fly with a CD player or FM radio playing through this input, with a cable connecting the portable player to the intercom. There is always a little extra cable coiled on the floor.

Recently on a night flight I was changing fuel tanks with the floor-mounted selector when the selector lever got stuck between fuel tanks and in such a position that the fuel flow was switched off. I tried to force the handle, but it would not move. This had never happened before.

A quick look revealed that the music cable had jammed in the selector lever. I was able to free it before the engine quit.

I have added two post lights to the fuel selector area and I now look at the handle before turning it. Even in turbulent IMC or at night I think the extra head motion involved is worth the risk involved.

Now, changing the fuel selector is a four-step process: feel the switch, look at the switch, make the change and confirm the proper position.

Other lessons to consider: The issue of cable management is, in our view, one of the primary reasons to minimize the use of portable electronics. We suggest you consider routing the connecting cable from the intercom to the spot usually occupied by the electronic device in such a way that it stays in the airplane and cannot interfere with controls or pose an obstruction to occupants getting out in an emergency.


10 Miles of Ocean
It was a perfect VFR Sunday. My wife and 5-year-old son joined me in a rented Cessna 172 for a trip from La-Verne, Calif., to Santa Catalina Island. This was a 35-40 minute flight, which includes about 25 miles over the ocean.

I requested VFR flight following with Southern California Approach. We were cruising at 4,500 about 10 miles out over the ocean when the Cessna began losing power and shaking violently. I made the 180-degree turn back toward land and declared an emergency. I already knew Long Beach was the nearest airport. I reduced power to limit the shaking.

The controller confirmed that Long Beach was at 12 oclock and 10 miles. He inquired about the nature of the emergency, fuel on board and number of souls. I am an air traffic controller and know that its standard procedure to request this information, but it really hit home when I was the one supplying the information instead of asking the question.

The controller set me up for a left base to runway 30, which is a 10,000-foot stretch of concrete. I was about a half mile from the runway and still at about 2,500 feet agl. I used a slip to lose altitude and landed without incident. I later learned the engine had swallowed a valve.

Im glad I had used flight following, because it helped reduce the stress by not having to look up frequencies on the sectional chart. I should have picked a higher altitude to give myself more options when going over water, however. If the engine had failed entirely, my only option would have been to ditch and I dont want to think about the possible consequences of that with a 5-year-old asleep in the car seat.

Other lessons to consider: We hope you were equipped with flotation gear for that overwater flight – unless you were prepared to climb to an altitude where youd be in gliding range of land. To do otherwise is not fair to uninformed passengers.


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