Prepare to be Aware –The Big 5 Problems

The accident numbers and NASA reports seem to cluster around particular areas of operation. This fact should serve as a warning sign. If pilots are repeatedly having problems in predictable situations, then whenever you find yourself headed into a similar situation you should know to get ready.

What if, while driving to work, you saw an accident at a particular intersection four days in a row. Wouldn’t you be especially careful as you went through that intersection on the fifth day? Of course you would. You would have heightened awareness to the possibility of a dangerous situation as you got closer to the spot where so many accidents had taken place. There may have been other places along the way where attentive driving was also necessary, but the fact remains: more accident take place at that intersection than anywhere else that you pass. The NTSB reports point toward similar danger zones — there are predictable circumstances where we know problems routinely occur. As we find ourselves in these circumstances we must be ready to raise our awareness. We must prepare to be aware.

The BIG 5 accident and incident clusters among general aviation pilots are:

  1. Traffic pattern operations
  2. Penetration of airspace
  3. VFR flight into IFR conditions
  4. Runway Incursions
  5. Over reliance on technology

This week, we’ll look at item Number 1, Traffic Pattern operations.

Examples: The following are examples from pilots who describe, in their own words, when they found themselves in these situations.

Uncontrolled Airport Traffic pattern conflict
NASA Number: 449200

I made all the appropriate uncontrolled airport radio calls. I taxied to runway 2 and did my run-up. During that time, one aircraft entered the traffic pattern for runway 20 and landed. Another aircraft had called inbound but had not yet entered the pattern. I pulled out on runway 2 and began my takeoff roll. Again I announced my takeoff. When I had reached my rotation point the inbound Cessna called entry to the left downwind for runway 20. I proceeded to lift off and climb out from runway 2, making a left turn out of the pattern and away from the Cessna. By this time the Cessna was turning base. The pilot of the Cessna began screaming about what he perceived to be an unsafe situation, and wanted to know why I wasn’t making radio calls. The screaming Cessna pilot was very upset and effectively blocked the unicom frequency for a minute or so until someone else on the unicom frequency asked him if he would cease and continue his questions after he had landed.

At an airport with a control tower the active runway is determined by the tower controller. But at every uncontrolled airport the runway selection is a group decision. The decision is easy when a strong wind clearly favors a particular runway, but that is not always the case. When the wind is light or calm more than one runway could become active. Some airports have designated a “calm wind” runway to be used when the wind favors no particular runway. The runway selected to be the “calm wind” runway is usually the runway with the greatest clear zone, or the one that directs traffic away from residential areas.

PROBLEM: The calm wind runway is not an “official” designation. It is usually something that local pilots have established among themselves and the airport manager. Incoming pilots who do not regularly fly to the airport will not know about the calm runway. When the wind is light or calm, pilots often select a runway that is best for their direction of departure. If headed south, a pilot will want to take off on runway 18 rather than 36. All this taken together means that there will always be differences of opinion when it comes to what should be the active runway. This occasionally leads to conflicts.

SOLUTION: When operating at an uncontrolled field, listen for other pilots. Another pilot giving a position report such as, “Hometown traffic, 1234A is left downwind to runway 24” will quickly tell you everything you need to know. You know which runway is in use. You know the direction of turns in the pattern, and you know the position of traffic in the pattern. If there are no other pilots on the radio, look throughout the pattern for the possibility of non-radio traffic in the pattern. Regardless, always self announce. When approaching the airport, if no radio conversations are taking place that will give you the information that you need, then call the unicom for an “airport advisory.” When departing an uncontrolled field ask if there is a designated calm wind runway at that airport.

Important: Whenever there is a conflict in the pattern, it is always better not to get into a shouting match over the unicom frequency. In the previous example the “screaming pilot” may have been correct, but he made the situation worse by carrying the discussion out over the radio. Blocking the radio can only create more problems.

Near Midair Collision in the Traffic Pattern
NASA Number: 449200

This incident took place while on a training flight with a foreign student. I had just departed runway 26 but prior to turning left onto a crosswind leg, another aircraft came into view off the right hand side of our airplane going in the opposite direction. Apparently, what in my estimation was a very close, tight downwind for runway 26. We had to snap left to lessen the closure rate. The cause, in my opinion, was a lack of correct radio usage together with a traffic pattern that did not comply with the AIM and applicable regulations.

PROBLEM: There are no “applicable regulations,” here. If this near-miss was the result of a “tight downwind” by the oncoming airplane the question gets even more fuzzy. The distance that the downwind leg should be flown parallel to the runway is never stated. I use one quarter to one half mile, but that is not a regulation.

SOLUTION: Find out where the other aircraft are. Make sure you visually identify the location of each aircraft in the pattern. Every effort must be taken to confirm your traffic situation.

Traffic pattern conflict results in a gear up landings
NASA Number: 450266

I was approaching Washington-Wilkes airport from the southwest. The wind was calm and there was no other traffic reported, so I elected to land on runway 13. As I lined up with the runway and began my prelanding checklist, I was totally surprised when I met an aircraft leaving from runway 31. There had been no indication of other traffic in the vicinity. I had called in and reported my position and intentions, but the other aircraft was either not using a radio or was using the wrong frequency. The FBO said he was unaware of the other airplane’s presence. The encounter upset me and diverted my attention. I simply failed to get the landing gear down. I touched down smoothly and skidded for perhaps 75 feet with no injury to myself and seemingly minor damage to the airplane. No other person was aboard.

PROBLEM: The approach is one of the most demanding phases of flight for the pilot. When this pilot “lined up with the runway” but had not yet started the prelanding checklist, he was behind the airplane. When jobs are not completed on time and therefore left until later, the workload will pile up. This makes it harder to have time to watch for other traffic. That’s why it would be easy to become “totally surprised” by other traffic. When time is not used wisely and workload gets piled up, any distraction will have a multiplying effect. This pilot became “upset and diverted” and then could not get everything done. The distraction created the situation where the landing gear was forgotten.

SOLUTION: Preparing to be aware means allowing time to become aware. Each time I roll out on my final approach to a runway and I see the runway numbers, I use that as my last reminder to verify that the landing gear is down. From that point on I know that I will be busy with the actual touchdown, so I want all other “housekeeping” chores already accomplished.

Two Airplanes takeoff toward each other
NASA Number: 459588

Prior to start we had calculated and came to the conclusion that we would use runway 26 for takeoff. I taxied down to runway 35 enroute to runway 26 and stated my actions on CTAF. I stopped short of runway 26 and performed all necessary checks. I taxied into position and stated my takeoff and intentions again on the CTAF. A visual check indicated a clear runway, so I started my takeoff roll. Full power was immediately used as the aircraft was near maximum takeoff weight. At approximately 100 knots and 2000 feet into my takeoff roll, I saw another aircraft at the opposite end of the runway, rapidly increasing in size. I immediately pulled the engines into full reverse and applied maximum braking. I was moving slowing and nearly to a full stop when the other aircraft flew overhead at very close range. I contacted the pilot of the departing aircraft and ask why he did not broadcast his intentions. He replied that he had broadcast his intentions and asked me why I had not broadcasted mine, as he did not hear my transmissions.

One other contributing factor is that there is a small rise in middle of the airport that obscures the view of the opposite end of the runway. That is why I was unable to see the other aircraft until I was farther down the runway. The rise might also affect the ability to transmit and/or receive the CTAF while on the ground.

PROBLEM: Not all runways are created equal. The runway at this airport was not flat — the end of one runway could not be seen from the other. The hump in the runway blocked the pilot’s vision, and may have also blocked the line-of-sight radio transmission.

SOLUTION: Situational awareness involves more than knowing where you are, it includes knowing where everything else is and how all those factors work together — and, more important, how they could conspire against you. Seeing another airplane coming toward you and “rapidly increasing in size” would be a scary sight. Having two airplanes taking off while aimed at each other sounds impossible, but this story points out how it could easily happen. Perhaps the pilot could not have seen the other aircraft — it is a pilot’s responsibility to consider the possibilities at any particular airfield, plan accordingly, and be prepared with a plan of action if things go wrong.

THE BOTTOM LINE: This class of incidents represents the dangers in and around a traffic pattern. They clearly show that pilots must be at their highest sense of alert and awareness when operating near an airport. Communications are important, but pilots rely to heavily on it. You must fly the traffic pattern with the expectation that airplanes will appear without warning. Calm winds actually pose a threat to safety because they do not designate a clear active runway. Know where the instrument approaches of the airport lead, and then watch for traffic as if nobody else has a radio.