I was in the right seat of a Beech Baron over Hutchinson, Kansas. KHUT is a sleepy little controlled airport just northwest of Wichita (it has a great restaurant, too!). My student and I were on a left downwind for Runway 31 toward the end of a long day’s training.
A Cessna Citation, also on a training mission, was inbound on the VOR approach to KHUT’s Runway 3. The procedure required its pilot to descend to a Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) about 600 feet above ground level (AGL), about five miles from the end of the runway. Tower advised us that the Citation would pass below us on our downwind leg and make a ‘low approach,‘ meaning it would not land, but would instead climb out straight ahead after reaching the ‘missed approach point‘ near the arrival end of Runway 3. I had the jet in sight; the right engine kept my student from being able to see the traffic. Tower told me to visually avoid the airplane and to maintain pattern altitude until it had passed beneath us. The crew of the Citation did not acknowledge seeing our Baron.
We were near the mid-point of our downwind leg as the Citation reached its MDA. It was then that its pilot made a common, but potentially disastrous mistake. A non-precision approach procedure such as this VOR approach calls for descending to and maintaining MDA until reaching the Missed Approach Point (MAP). This allows the pilot to safely fly at a low altitude to find an airport obscured by low clouds or fog, until he/she can see the runway and make a visual landing. Many pilots confuse this with the procedure for a precision approach (like an Instrument Landing System, or ILS) more commonly flown in bigger-airport operations. In that case, the pilot descends along an electronic glideslope to a spot (usually) 200 feet AGL on short final, and immediately climbs out if the runway environment is not in sight upon reaching that altitude. The Citation pilot — and instructor — made this common mistake and initiated a climb as soon as they reached MDA, instead of ‘driving‘ at the airport while maintaining Minimum Descent Altitude. Their mistake made the little white jet grow suddenly bigger and bigger out the right-side windows of our Baron.
‘I’ve got it,‘ I called as I took the controls, figuring I could get us out of the way sooner than I could explain to my student how to avoid a jet he could not see. I yanked the Baron up and to the right; the Citation continued its climbout without so much as a dip of the wings to signal having seen us. Tower allowed us to re-enter the pattern, and asked the jet crew to call when they came back around and landed.
Near miss accidents aren’t supposed to happen in Class D airspace with a controller working only two airplanes.
What Went Wrong?
Tower did everything ‘by the book,‘ since we had the Citation in sight. Yet two aircraft very nearly collided less than a mile from the runway — almost directly above the control tower.
It’s easy to get complacent when practicing in the traffic pattern. It’s even easier when you’re in the comfortable arms of Air Traffic Control — so easy, in fact, that instructors can be drawn into watching the student and watching the instruments, and not watching outside the airplane. After all, that’s what the tower is for, … isn’t it?
Combine this complacency with an improperly flown procedure and you invite disaster. I ‘knew‘ the professional crew of the jet would drop to several hundred feet beneath my altitude and stay there — but it didn’t. Neither the tower controller nor I predicted the jet crew would do something other than what we expected it would — another form of complacency. We did not expect the unexpected; in this case, that almost killed at least four of us.
DEFENSE: To avoid near misses (and actual collisions):
- Be predictable. Fly procedures exactly as designed … somebody might be avoiding you by predicting where you’re going to be later in the procedure. Don’t take shortcuts in the name of expediting training.
- Keep your eyes outside. All pilots, even those flying under Instrument Flight Rules, but in visual weather conditions, are required to see and avoid obstacles and other airplanes. You can’t see and avoid something you’re not looking for — so keep the outside world in your scan.
- Do NOT depend too much on ATC. A controller is an extra set of eyes watching your flight — they shouldn’t be the only eyes. Do NOT fully delegate responsibility to ATC.
- Instructors: Remember your responsibility. Don’t let your students get away with improperly flying procedures, because you need to fly predictably for controllers and other pilots to avoid you. You’re there to train a pilot, but your main job is to ensure the safety of the flight. You’re responsible for traffic avoidance when your student is under the hood.
BOTTOM LINE: ‘See and avoid‘ works when all pilots live up to their responsibilities. It works even better when we fly with a measure of predictability as dictated by proper procedure.
For more about working and playing well with other (airplanes), see: