Cleared To… Fly Into That Tower!

I was talking with an old friend the other day, and he related a story to me that quite honestly threw me for a loop. The story was about an unexpected close encounter with a ground-based obstruction, and how he was led into a nearly fatal trap.

As my friend descended through the overcast down to his home airport, the weather was improving. The tower had radar contact, and had him descending towards the instrument approach.

My friend popped out of the overcast with more than enough altitude to continue with a visual approach inbound to the airport. He dutifully called in to the tower, and reported he was clear of the clouds and could make a visual approach. The tower thanked him for the information, and then cleared his aircraft direct from his current position to the runway.

Our intrepid pilot followed the direction given to him by ATC, and began his VFR descent into the airport. With his GPS unit, he was able to set up a quick route change, which took him directly to the end of the runway. While his attention was focused inside the airplane, he caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye. To his surprise, he passed entirely too close to a radio tower, which was in the airport area. Shaken, he took immediate action to move away from the radio tower to a safe distance, and then resumed his trip towards the runway.

From the point our friend declared he was below the clouds and accepted a visual approach, he released ATC from any responsibility for collision avoidance with ground-based objects. ATC then cleared him to the destination runway ‘direct,’ without the knowledge that a tower was in the path between his current position and the end of the runway.

My friend got lucky — a few more degrees to the left, and he might have clipped a wing, or struck the tower. Aircraft encounters with ground obstructions have been on record… ever since we’ve been trying to avoid them. There is a common theme, though — the airplane rarely wins. The sequence is the same in virtually all cases — the plane impacts the tower or guy wire or stack and, as a direct result, stalls, spins, and crashes.

There are a lot of things that can reach up to grab you when you’re flying, and the key to missing them has just as much to do with studying charts and maintaining visual awareness as it does with your mental game. You need to be able to transition from an instrument approach to a visual approach mentally. Read and heed…

  • Diffusion of Responsibility: When you go VISUAL, that means see and avoid — even though they were looking out for you a second ago, assume ATC has moved on to other things and that you’re now on your own.
  • Traffic Advisories: While ATC can and will provide prompts to you for traffic, the exact location of ground based obstructions and your exact proximity to those obstructions is not their problem. Assume they do not know the threats that exist between you and the airport.
  • Into The Great Unknown: Once you are off the approach corridor inbound, ALL BETS ARE OFF. Remember: the instrument approach corridor is protected airspace — while under ATC control and within the corridor, as long as you maintain the proper altitude, you can’t get into trouble!

BOTTOM LINE: ATC is not required to keep you informed of ground obstructions and they may not even be aware of them — especially as they relate to you as you fly VFR. The challenge here lies in your ability to switch mentalities from the ‘controlled’ IFR flight mentality to the ‘you’re on your own’ VFR mentality. As you transition from an instrument to a visual approach — from eyes in to eyes out — you also need to transition from head in to head out of the cockpit.

Better yet, if you aren’t familiar with the airport in question, STICK TO THE INSTRUMENT APPROACH or if VFR, review the charts of the area so that you know what lies ahead near the final approach course. That way, you will stay on the known ‘safe’ route, and avoid any close encounters!