July 18, 2011

    Here’s a true story: A farmer stopped his plow one day, glancing at the railroad track that went past his farm.  “I heard a whistle to the East, and saw the afternoon freight heading westbound on the single track.  Then I looked West and saw old number 97 heading east, with a full head of steam, really hammering down the track.”  He was asked what he did then.  He said, “Nothing.  I just thought to myself, that’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.”

    I was briefing a student pilot on our goals for the day’s lesson.  The aircraft we were flying that day (a Cessna 152) had been delayed by a checkride running overtime at a nearby airport.  As we waited, we heard the 152 pilot call on the unicom frequency, “Dallas Bay Traffic, Cessna XXXXX is 4 miles east, will enter downwind for runway 5.”  We also heard an army helicopter call, announcing that it would fly east to west just south of the airport.  We heard the 152 pilot acknowledge hearing the helicopter, and then announce that he had the helicopter in sight.  We saw the helicopter pass the airport at 500 AGL, moving northwest.

    Looking out the window, I noticed another aircraft in the area, southeast of the field, flying parallel to the runway.  There was no radio traffic from that airplane.  The 152 pilot called downwind, base, and final for runway 5.  My student and I saw the 152 approaching the runway.  As the 152 was touching down, a Piper PA-22 Tri-Pacer flashed past the building, landing on runway 23.  I ran out of the building to watch, horrified.  The pilots of the Piper and the 152  apparently saw each other after they were on the ground, and used braking and steering to avoid each other.  The 152 steered off and back on the runway to ensure safe passage.

    The Tri-Pacer had recently based at Dallas Bay.  It was flown by its owner and a flight instructor.  The owner is a student pilot.  The instructor was acting as PIC on this flight.

    After both airplanes taxied in, I called  a conference.  The Piper had flown to LaFayette, GA, for radio service on the PA-22.  They had been talking with Chattanooga Approach on frequency 125.1 just before arriving at the Dallas Bay area.  They had missed the notation “RP 23” on the sectional chart, and flown a left downwind and base to land on runway 23.  They said they had made repeated radio calls in the pattern.  Using a hand-held radio to check, we could not get either carrier or voice on any of several frequencies that we tested with their radio.  It was also not receiving on any of the frequencies we tested, including 125.1.  They had been unaware of the Army helicopter in the area, which passed just under and behind them.  They had not heard the chopper or the 152 radio calls.  They thought they were announcing themselves in the pattern. 

    Now, the editorial.  See and avoid, especially in the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport, is always critical.  Mid-air collisions happen most frequently on VFR days at such places.  Rolling out on final, we need to scan the entire runway environment for potential problems.  It’s natural to focus on the landing, but we must keep on looking.  Radio calls are nice, but we must be suspicious about the airplane that doesn’t have a radio for just such a situation as this one.  Quoting my CAP friend Ron Volungus, “the most important safety feature on any airplane is the Mark I Eyeball.”  All three pilots should have seen the aircraft approaching from the opposite direction only a little more that 1/2 mile away; go-arounds, with side-step to the right, would have been appropriate for either or both aircraft.  Avoid tunnel vision, especially in the traffic pattern.  Observe the larger picture and stay safer. 


A Near-Miss on Landing