The vanishing airplane – in the pattern with me

This episode – which to me was and still is mysterious – happened many years ago when Wichita’s municipal airport was fairly new and not too heavily used. My memory of it was of a very nice, high visibility day and I was flying in, complacently, from northwest of the airport (I don’t remember anything about the flight prior to this). There were two other voices heard over the radio throughout the event: the tower operator, calm, collected and business like, and that of a female pilot, chipper, level toned and following protocol, also apparently approaching the field from the northwest.

Wichita airport
I’m on downwind for the airport… but which airport?

Myself and the other pilot – who also stated she was flying a Cessna as I was – both called the tower with our intentions of making a full-stop landing, and I’m not sure which of us called in first. The tower said he had me in sight, but did not have the other Cessna in sight. My attitude changed from complacent to alert.

I looked around for the other airplane, but did not see it. I checked to make sure I was at pattern altitude, and it was right on. As I got to the point of about turning downwind, the other pilot called and said she was turning downwind. The tower responded that he did not have her in sight. My attitude changed from alert to concerned, as I really hate mid-air collisions.

I tried looking forward on the downwind leg, high and low, right and left and back along the leg, high and low, right and left and saw no other airplane. I called and declared my intention to turn downwind, and the tower acknowledged my transmission, so I did. The other pilot called and said she was on downwind – my attitude changed to near panic.

I of course continued to search for any sight of her airplane in any direction and couldn’t find it.

I thought maybe I should make a right turn out of the pattern and start the approach all over – but then I thought I might be turning into her path of flight so just continued downwind. I think, but am not sure, that the lady at some point said she was turning base – I was more concerned with being prepared to take evasive action wherever it was needed.

As I got to the point of needing to turn base myself, and I’m sure my voice reflected my trepidation, I said I was turning base and the tower said, matter-of-factly, cleared to land. I was still uncertain if I was the only one about to land, even after I turned on final and could see very well there was no other airplane on approach or on the runway in front of me. But, still, I worried there might have been one behind me.

I landed and was directed off the active and to contact ground control. But I turned the airplane a little so I could get a look at the approach and landing area behind me, and there was no airplane on the runway or on final. So, relieved but confused, I contacted ground control and proceeded to taxi. I was no longer able to hear tower communications, so I don’t know if there were other transmissions with the lady in the airplane that vanished. Where did she go?

The episode left me with some questions: where was that other airplane, at another airport? How did the tower know the airplane he had in sight was mine and not hers? And why did he not respond to her after the second notice that he did not have her in sight? What did he know, or suspect, that I didn’t?

Controller
What do they see, and when?

Understand that this article is not intended as a put down of female pilots, as there were and are many good ones and she might well have been one of them. Her calls to the tower were cheery, all in appropriate order and with proper terminology – maybe just to the wrong tower. (You will understand this even more when you read the last paragraph, below.) But, more likely, this is a put down of tower operators who don’t tell you enough to reduce your anxiety. After all, the other pilot kept reporting in right where I was in the pattern. So, I don’t know when during the encounter her airplane vanished, into Wichita’s 1350 foot altitude not so thin air – maybe before it started.

Some time after the above mix up, I was approaching the same airport – Wichita’s municipal one, on the west side of town – from the same general Western direction, except it was at night. As I tuned into the tower frequency I was entertained with a lengthy discourse between the tower and this time a male pilot who insisted he was at that airport and intending to land, and a somewhat perplexed tower operator who could not locate that guy’s airplane anywhere in the vicinity.

I decided to sit this one out, and – without calling in – established a personal holding pattern a little away from the airport on the west. The conversation continued with even a couple of abandoned approaches intervening and the vagrant airplane on another try at a final, when the tower operator suddenly said, “Look on your right, is there a line of B-47’s parked there?”

Answer: “Yes.”

Tower: “You’re at McConnell Air Force Base”, which some may know is on the other, eastern, side of the city.

I decided to go ahead and make my landing while the other guy flew across town. Every pilot can confuse one airport for another. And this tower operator straightened things out instead of leaving them be. Of course, this time I stayed out of it – and experienced no anxiety.

12 Comments

  • Reminds me of a time I had a similar experience but a bit more harrowing. Was approaching the airport for a landing and was told to watch for traffic ahead of me and report when in sight. Didn’t see the other aircraft. Tower gave an update for our location and told me to report when the aircraft was in sight. Still didn’t see the other guy. Next report had our positions switched! I finally saw the other plane as I was turning final which he was doing the same, only a couple hundred feet away. Needless to say, I expedited my landing and got off the runway as fast as possible.

    • Ben,
      Not seeing the A/C you were instructed to ” have in sight and follow”, requires that you do not turn base until visual contact was established (by you).
      Remember, the controller is our best friend for separation but it is the pilots responsibility to ” see and avoid”.
      Your life depends on this practice.
      The way you describe the events, shows that you failed to identify the A/C you were instructed to follow. You were # 2 in the pattern. Instead you turned in front of the #1 A/C and ” raced them” or ” cut them off”.
      When you did see the # 1 A/C, you chose to hurry up and land anyway.
      The legal procedure in an event such as the one described by you, is to turn away from the traffic ASAP and execute a go- around, then advise the controller.
      Thanks for sharing your experience, even thought you might find out that you were possibly at fault, you help other pilots learn an important lesson.

      • Actually I was following Air Traffic Controller instructions. I guess I didn’t clearly state that, but when she gave me instructions into the pattern and cleared me first for landing and then instructed the other plane for landing. There was no instruction to “follow the other airplane” only to be on the lookout for it. The other aircraft couldn’t see me either. Upon discussion with my flight instructor about it he thought that the A/C may have had our two planes mixed up, because our on the later call our positions swapped exact positions. So, yes, I was following A/C instructions given that my home airport which this event occurred is a towered airport and from the very beginning I learned to follow Air Traffic Control instructions and have NEVER deviated from their instructions.

        • And before anyone mentions it, I would hope this goes without saying, but just in case, yes I know I can deviate if its and emergency, I’ve just never had to.

  • Ben – Your experience confirms my sentiment. The tower certainly should have advised you of the proximity of the other aircraft, not just left it up to you to find and avoid it. My experience was scary but obviously not that serious – there really was no other airplane. Yours could have had disasterly consequences
    Harry.

  • Sometimes you’re just not in the right position to see another aircraft, no matter how diligently you search. If the ATC controller isn’t proffering the information you feel you need to make visual contact on traffic, ASK them for the distance/direction, or, whether THEY have visual contact with the other traffic. Request a 360 degree turn to check for traffic. They have the authority to approve that maneuver, just don’t do it unexpectedly on you own. They can’t feel your rising “pucker factor”. (Well, they can, but the octave of your voice has to keep increasing until they figure out you’re getting panicky about something!!)

    ATC is there to keep aircraft from “trading paint”. Never hesitate to take the initiative when working with them. It’s the PIC who is the “final authority” in the operation of the aircraft.

  • Why would there be a mixup as to who the tower was communicating with and giving clearance? The tower always begins communications with your tail number, and you terminate your transmission with your tail number! If you are in the pattern, most likely the tower pulled the binoculars out and was able to see your tail number, so as to know for sure who they were talking to, somewhere in the pattern.

    • I was wondering the same for Mr. Clements story. As for mine, she was calling our tail numbers loud and clear. My flight instructor at the time thought that we had a mix up on the radar, and ident. I always ident after I call the tower and they then request for me to ident. Some people who use the same airport ident when making contact and usually say something like “here’s the ident.” I can’t remember if anything was going on like that that day.

  • Don, Steve and Ben have a point about identifying the caller with the stated tail number – but I was told I was in sight before I entered the pattern, and under the circumstances I wasn’t sure the tower operator knew which one of us (if there was more than one of us) was which. And then the tower operator just ignored the other airplane’s communications and didn’t respond to them at all. He was completely calm and confident in his communications with me, but that didn’t make me so. He seemed to know there was no other plane to contend with, but I didn’t – and didn’t he owe the other pilot some guidance, if just to confirm he still didn’t have her in sight – like the operator dealing with the guy at the Air Force Base did? Harry

  • Ben, you should not “ident” when checking in with any ATC facility unless and until they request that you do so. It fouls up the screen for the controller for about :30 seconds and makes it very hard, if not impossible, to see more than your target if another is very close to you. At least that is how it was in the 1980″s when I was furloughed as an airline pilot and worked for O’Hare Tower, Tracon and also at the Chicago Center. What you may think is helping them spot you can really make a problem out of nothing.
    I was also based at McConnell AFB during the 1973-79 era, flying KC-135’s there and also flying way more often in general aviation at nearly all of the 17 airports in the local area. Heads up operation was critical at all times, whether landing at a towered airport, or at the many other non-towered fields in the area. Cessna had a delivery center and a test runway on either side of the final for McConnell’s 18L/R at the time. There was walso a Beech Factory runway about 6 miles northeast and Comotara Airport, later named James Jabara Airport about 4 miles north of that. Many folks could get easily lost and even an Evergreen B-747 landed at Jabara a few years back on final for McConnell 18L or what is now 19L.
    Always tune and identify, and now, verify where you are with GPS, if you have it up and running, as it should be.
    I have had numerous mid-air near collisions, one even in radar contact and with TCAS operating, in one case, while talking to the controller and with the other aircraft saying he had me in sight. There just has to be constant vigilance at all timnes, and if something doesn’t seem right, do something “safer” and remove yourself from the conflict the best way you can while stating the same. Explaining yourself at a hearing or debriefing is much better than having articles written about you or “Air Disaster” shows produced about you and the other guy.

  • Sorry. After reading what I said, it came out wrong. I meant to say I ident only after they tell me to, but I have seen others ident without. I never ident before. And to be honest, Im getting a little sick of the criticizing of my flying abilities. I learnd to fly start to finish at a towered airport, so I know all the procedures about flying at toward airport. I would have heard from someone in the tower long before all you guys who want to correct me. If not the tower then my flight instructor would have corrected me. So I say again I LEARNED AT A TOWERED AIRPORT START TO FINISH, SO I KNOW HOW TO FLY AT A TOWERED AIRPORT.

  • I would also like to take the time to thank Mr. Clements for accepting and understanding my story as is without me having to go into every little detail. As to everyone else who has commented and all those who want to comment on my flying abilities, or procedures, all I can say is most pilots I know, when telling a flying story, don’t have to spell everything out. Everyone else seems to want to assume I don’t know what I’m doing. But let me explain to the apparently either non-pilots making a comment, or pilots who think they know how to fly and want to prove it by nitpicking at others. The vast bulk of my flying has been done at a towered airport. If I am as bad a pilot as some of the comments try to make me out to be, then some one in the tower would have reported me to the FAA by now and they in turn would take some disciplinary action against me. So how about giving someone the benefit of the doubt and not automatically assume I’m a Charlie Fox Trot as a pilot. I would normally do the same, unless I’m actually in the cockpit with them and they do something stupid. I’m assuming we are all pilots looking at this website, and have to meet all the same basic requirements, so anyone that has at least some kind of pilots certificate went through the same process. So how about a little courtesy and not assume everyone else is a bad pilot if they just so happen to not explain some part or another in the story, because they may not see it as important or think that any pilot will know what went on without saying.

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