Split decision

It can be very helpful to have your copilot handle communications on a tough IFR day. And it can keep him/her in the game when you’re cruising in the sunshine at FL240. But I learned the hard way that it may not be such a hot idea in a VFR traffic pattern.

We were in a Cessna 210 sitting beside the active at Clermont County (I69) on a beautiful day as our traffic cleared the runway. Our destination: Cincinnati Lunken, a five-minute flight to the west. My copilot had many thousands of hours of time in his log. We frequently shared various cockpits in good weather and bad. He had an instructor’s rating, and gave me periodic instrument currency and flight reviews.

Two pilots in the cockit
Who’s the pilot in command? Something to decide on the ground, not in the air.

But this was not an instruction flight. We had stopped at I69 after a three hour cross-country, and were now going to bop on over to our home base at Lunken.

As I started to nudge the 210 on to the active, I jokingly said, “Why should I do all the work? You handle the radio.” He nodded and unicom’ed that we were taking the active for Lunken.

On a routine day at Lunken, we’d have a good chance of getting a left base entry to 21L or 25. But not on this gorgeous weekend day. The 21L and R patterns were busier than a bunch of bees trying to please the queen.

Tower instructed us to proceed upwind about a half-mile outside the 21L downwind leg for a right 180 on to the downwind behind a 172 that was just turning downwind at the departure end of 21L. 21L is 6,101 feet long. It wouldn’t take long for the 172 to pass on our right.

“I’ve got the traffic,” I said on the intercom. I wasn’t in any hurry to get on the ground. I expected my right-seater to advise tower that we had the traffic and would turn downwind behind it.

But he surprised me. Big time. He advised we had the traffic, but then asked for, and received the okay for, a turn in front of the 172 for a short downwind to 21L.

What the…! Who’s in charge here? Turn in front of an aircraft on the downwind? Not something I did. “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but…”

My mind froze as I tried to adjust and decide whether to turn in front of the 172. I debated. Why even come close to risking a midair? After several seconds of flying straight ahead talking to myself, the decision was made for me. Too late. Can’t turn in front of him now. I glanced at my friend in the right seat. He was scowling.

We landed safely. The tower had said nothing about the episode. So, all’s well that ends well, right? No harm, no foul, and all that. Well…no. As the prop wound to stop in front of the hangar, my copilot went into instructor mode and unloaded on me. “Why didn’t you turn the instant tower approved it? The tower expected us to turn. That’s my voice on the tower tape.”

I was chagrined. Maybe he was right. Who was I to argue with such an experienced pilot? Maybe I should have immediately turned in front of the 172. He and the tower had thought it was safe. In looking back on it, I agree. It would have been safe if I had turned immediately. Was I wrong not to make the turn?

I don’t think so. As PIC, the decision of whether to make the turn was ultimately my decision and responsibility. Choosing the conservative road was not a mistake.

My mistake occurred earlier in the decision chain: I had given communications to my copilot when I knew the pattern was busy as all get out. Things can happen quickly in a VFR pattern, and may require a decision to be instantly made and communicated. There may not be time to sort out differences of opinion. There may not even be time to tell your copilot what he should say on the radio, have him understand what you intend, and communicate it.

My suggestion: Keep the three essentials (aviate, navigate, communicate) under your control in VFR traffic patterns. Certainly the copilot has a role in the pattern. For example, have him help spot traffic. Have him keep an eye on airspeed and altitude. But keep control of the basics in your own hands. And mouth. A busy traffic pattern is no place for gee-haw split decisions.

8 Comments

  • Agreed. Don’t delegate the comm responsibility. Copilot can handle planning ahead, looking out for traffic, advising pilot of problems, scanning instruments in the pattern when pilot is visual, etc. I even like having the copilot calling out altitudes in 100-foot increments below 500 feet. Above all though, there should be a clear agreement as to who is the actual Pilot In Command before the chocks are removed.

  • I had a flight instructor once (Dave, you may remember him) who taught me early on a good lesson. If the co-pilot is working the radio and gets asked a question, he must check with the pilot flying before accepting or declining. I learned this by accepting a “cleared direct” once without so much as a look to the left seat–and a quick slap on my hand.

    It’s good practice even in two-crew cockpits where the co-pilot always works the radios. Check first.

  • I agree with Zimmerman. I don’t think this is a radio issue at all. Right seater running the radio and reading the checklists is a great luxury for PIC. But the right seater consults with the PIC before doing anything that impinges on the PIC’s decision making responsibility. For example, when I am right seat going into an uncontrolled airport, I’ll say something like “You’ll be making a left downwind for 15?” and then I’ll make the announcement according to what the PIC says. When ATC asks a question, I look to the PIC for his response and then relay it.

    To ask Tower for a short approach without first _suggesting_ it to the PIC is beyond simply being stupid and irresponsible.

  • Good job David of sticking to your guns and playing it conservative. AND for not letting the pressure of a more experienced pilot derail you! How many times do we see that the accident happens because the more junior pilot defers to the senior one even though he knows something’s amiss? (Speculation on Asiana 214, anyone?). It was totally irresponsible of your pilot to request an unexpected maneuver!

  • The problem is not with delegation of comm. It is with a misunderstanding about authority. Your Co- should have ask you as PIC if you were ok with the early turn. If the turn needed to be that quick the answer to all involved should have been NO. The answer to every issue can not be keep all tasks to yourself, that is poor CRM. The answer should be a better briefing about command and control.

    In this situation when you said “I’ve got the traffic,”. Your Co- should have ask can we turn in front of him? You as PIC could have decided without being surprised.

  • I really liked this story. Your co-pilot was not PIC and should not have made decisions affecting how you were to fly the airplane. You did well and were a LOT more diplomatic after you got on the ground then I would have been. I would have jumped down his throat with both feet if he had admonished me after undermining my PIC authority in the cockpit! He overlooked that requesting and accepting a split-second manuver without your agreement could cost you both your lives.

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