There I was: my near midair at Shelton, Washington

I recently flew our club’s Cessna Skycatcher (N1205J) from my home base at Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW), to Sanderson Airport (KSHN) in Shelton, Washington, a non-towered airport 25 miles away, to get current. Weather was clear and a bazillion. In fact, I had delayed my planned takeoff from 10:00 am to noon to let the last pattern altitude puffies dissipate from the south Puget Sound area.

I got there 15 minutes later. Winds were light and variable at SHN and they were landing on Runway 23. I made the appropriate calls on 122.8 and entered the pattern on a midfield 45 to left downwind for Runway 23. Even though the SHN pattern altitude is 1275 ft, it was bumpy enough that I was happy to hold 1300 +/-.

Standard airport traffic pattern
Is this the law, or just a suggestion?

I shared the pattern for 20 minutes with an Ercoupe (who must have been an ex-B-52 pilot based on his pattern spacing…). After following him through four touch and goes, the Ercoupe finally full-stopped and I had the pattern to myself… I thought… until a Cessna Caravan suddenly announced he was departing on Runway 23 – right behind me.

I assumed it was a sky dive jump plane, so I opted to turn my left crosswind a bit early to get out of his way. That was not necessary: as I looked back over my left shoulder, he was already in a mid-field, climbing right hand turn to the north.

That’s when I heard “Sanderson area traffic, White Glasair, about 3 miles southeast, looking to do a straight-in to 23 if possible.” I am not kidding.

In order to help him know what the “Sanderson area traffic” picture looked like, my next call was “Sanderson Traffic, Skycatcher 05J turning left crosswind to downwind, Runway 23, Sanderson.” My hope was he would realize I was still somewhere southwest of the departure end of the runway, and he could probably do his “straight-in to 23 if possible” option.

I leveled off at 1300’ and slowed to 70 knots to let him have the runway: I wanted him to do his thing out in front of me, whatever he chose. During the next several seconds, there were a couple 122.8 calls from the other 600 local airports that share that frequency. I still could not see the White Glasair.

When I reached mid-field (exactly, mid-field), I announced “Sanderson Traffic, Skycatcher 05J, mid-field left downwind Rwy 23, Sanderson.” Almost immediately, I heard “Sanderson, White Glasair, midfield left downwind, Sand…”

“Holy s#@%” (Sorry – that was me, yelling into my intercom.)

Glasair
Flying the pattern at 70 knots or 170?

The Glasair came from behind and below, just under the right side of my fuselage. The flash of white made me pull up and barrel roll to the left. My right wing and his left wing overlapped our respective longitudinal axes.  I’m not sure how his prop missed my right main gear. My best, no BS guess is we missed each other by maybe 10 feet. Good thing I was a bit high at 1300 ft; ironic how my poor flying skills probably saved my life.

By the time I got back to wings sort-of-level, he was easily a quarter mile out in front of me. Based on my 70 knots, I’d bet he was doing 160-170.  I didn’t say anything at first; I promised I’d never “engage” anyone on the radio. After a few seconds he came out with, “I didn’t realize you were so close to turning base; I’ll extend out here and turn in behind you.” All of which confirmed for me he had absolutely no clue whatsoever that I was there, or, of what had almost just happened. I told him, “I’m departing to the east.”

I watched him eventually turn base leg two miles out in front of me and I finally had to ask, “Did you see me?”

“Sure,” he responded, which only proved he’s as poor a liar as he is a pilot.

How many Lessons Learned can you glean from one compressed moment of terror? I don’t know, they’re still coming to me. I’m pretty sure my wife would have won the lawsuits based on the Glasair’s various Part 91 violations. Small consolation for losing the Skycatcher.

13 Comments

  • Bad pilots like this are what gives general aviation a bad name. Maybe the FAA needs to create a database where pilots can report concerns about other pilots. The registered owner of the plane would have to respond to each complaint. No individual complaint will result in action but a pattern of problems could prompt an investigation prior to an accident.

    • How would you even begin to do something like pilot reporting? Maybe the author could’ve picked up an N-number, but I never heard it mentioned. The other pilot never used it in a radio call (as written), and I seriously doubt the author was concerned about reading it off the tail section as it flashed by at 100+ knots relative speed.

      Besides, an N-number is pretty useless for identifying pilots. The aircraft can easily be rentals, club aircraft, borrowed, hired, or otherwise part of a “shared” environment.

      In my case, I most frequently fly a club C172. On any given day, any of 26 pilots could be operating one of the club aircraft, so the N-number wouldn’t help a whole lot.

  • The problem with incidents like this, in terms of looking for the FAA to “do something” in terms of enforcement, is that it’s virtually impossible to prove that a pilot violated “see and avoid”, because nobody can prove after the fact that one pilot actually saw another aircraft and should have avoided a collision or near-miss.

    As many others have written before, “see and avoid” sounds good in theory but it doesn’t work very well in the real world, in terms of both enforcement as well as in avoiding mid-air collisions. We all know as pilots that it’s often difficult to actually see other aircraft, even when one is vigilant and using a good scan, when there are so many other things going on in an aircraft cockpit that also occupy the pilot’s attention. If flying solo, and the pilot is busy configuring the aircraft for the landing approach, and communicating on the radio, and assessing the winds and so forth, it’s just too easy to miss the sight of another aircraft in the pattern.

    Some folks advocate getting rid of the standard landing pattern and going for a military style overhead approach. Others practice mostly straight in landings (the pattern-flyers hate those pilots!). Still others think technology, as in ADS-B-in traffic alerts, are the answer, or at least, are an answer (but not before every aircraft is equipped with ADS-B-in, which of course is impossible unless antique or home-built aircraft lacking electrical systems are outlawed).

    In the end, all we can do is to practice our best version of “see and avoid”, as Tom Curran did in this episode, and hope we don’t get blindsided by someone who doesn’t.

  • The proliferation of a generation of drivers who cannot merge in highway traffic, nor maintain a constant travel speed, has its parallels in the pilot population.

    Keep your hand on a swivel, NEVER descend into a traffic pattern, and USE the CTAF to mitigate ambiguity and uncertainty. And be thankful that it’s a big sky.

  • Thanks Tom;

    A couple folks have asked about observations and lessons learned from my episode at Shelton. In no particular order–and without judging the other pilot too harshly–here’s what I have:

    Goofy radio calls often mean goofy flying. Goofy calls coming from a high performance airplane always gets my attention.
    If he had been listening to the CTAF for even a couple minutes, he’d have heard me, the Caravan jump plane and possibly even the Ercoupe, all making fairly decent, non-towered airport radio calls.

    The B/L is you can never relax your efforts to ‘see & avoid’, regardless of right-of-way rules/issues, radio calls, other known traffic, and where you EXPECT someone else to be.

    What would I do different: NEVER quit looking for the other guy. I didn’t quit, but I was scanning the wrong piece of sky. All the ‘clues’ I processed on this guy convinced me he was out in front/east of me. I have no idea how he ended up behind me.

    Realize that a Glasair III, with gear retracted, is about the size of a #2 pencil when viewed head-on @1 mile, so I doubt I’d have seen him if he was pointed right at me.

    How he missed seeing me (which I still don’ think he did) is a mystery; I had to be filling his windscreen as he was overtaking me. The sun was high and to his/our right 4 o’clock (behind us); I don’t believe that was a factor. His last comms, and the relative positions of our planes, also convince me he never saw me.

    What would I still NOT DO again: Respond directly to his veiled “request” to do a straight-in to Rwy 23. For me to tell him it looked ‘OK’ to do his straight-in, is not appropriate. I’m not an air traffic controller, and although I have a bit of experience explicitly directing other airplanes as a formation lead/flight lead/package commander/mission commander, I can still only fly One airplane (…at a time, of course!).

    If you don’t have any situational awareness (SA) in regards to the traffic pattern, stay out of it. And definitely don’t come smoking into it at those speeds; he was going way too fast for the conditions.

  • I am the Chief Flight Instructor and “Benovelant Dictator” of The RFTS Flying Club, which operates the Skycatcher that Tom was flying. I have heard this story more than once and listened to all the comments about the other pilot- “he wasn’t watching”, he was too fast in the pattern”, “he shouldn’t have been doing a straight in”, etc. What nobody seems to have picked up on is that the Glassair pilot reported South East of Shelton for a straight in to runway 23 when in fact he was South West and making a direct entry to downwind! He didn’t even know where he was! Tom would have had a better chance of seeing him if he could have looked in the right place.

  • ADS-B might have helped in this case IF Tom’s plane had it AND the Glassair had it AND the pilot knew how to interpret the display. Too many Ifs. I am beginning to work on a design to avoid collisions in VFR conditions by using about 6 digital cameras each with their own aircraft detection software and looking in all directions simultaneously. They would report by spoken word to the PIC headset to avoid taking the pilot’s eyes inside the cockpit. Other aircraft would be required to reflect light in the visible spectrum. It doesn’t exist yet, but I’m open to questions, criticism or help.

  • Walt, your project sounds fascinating, but I wonder if it would be overshadowed by ADS-B. Surely the cost of installing all those cameras would be substantial. I’d hate for you to develop and prove your system only to find that the marketplace doesn’t want it because ADS-B serves the same purpose at lower cost.

  • The difference between my idea and ADS-B is the other aircraft would not be required to have ANYTHING except the ability to reflect light (be visible). It would only be useful in VFR conditions (see and avoid). Instead of being a competitor with ADS-B, it would complement ADS-B for conditions when the pilot would be expected to see other aircraft (and avoid them). VFR. As for cost, camera unit costs have dropped steadily. I just bought a 1080p dash cam for about $20. Installation could be very simple using Wi-Fi or Blue tooth to communicate cameras to a central receiver. (No wiring) and no STC! It might be possible to glue them onto the a/c skin. I’ building a RV-7 to use as a ‘test bed’. Other thoughts?

  • I didn’t see mention in your very interesting article of lights. What lights was your C172 equipped with, and were they all “on”? I’m a big believer in LIGHTS ON below 10,000′, which means most flights for me. Thanks for an excellent, 1st person account.

  • Great question: Our C-162 has wingtip strobes, position, landing/taxi lights. In this particular very busy airspace (in and around Seattle’s Class B), and ANYTIME I’m operating in/near a traffic pattern, I turn everything on. Lightbulbs are cheap.

  • No worries. Pride, stupidity, and physics (not to mention karma) will catch up to him someday.

    Hopefully he will not bring any innocent people down with him when that happens.

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