I had had a very subpar flight and, after exiting the taxiway, I decided to take a short cut. The problem with short cuts is that most of them don’t work, especially on airports. I had made a bad crosswind landing (didn’t kick out the crab in time), then saw a gap between two parked helos, so I slowed down to below crawl speed, heard and felt the sickening thump, shut down, cursed loudly, and inspected the damage.
The following weeks were full of phone calls, forms, embarrassing conversations with insurance claims adjusters, airplane owners and the relevant FBOs. Feeling like I had let myself down was an added bonus. I had obviously committed one of the five deadly sins: impulsivity. Breaking the position light was indeed humbling.
On to the next flight. The airplane I had rented was not the usual one; it had a little more power, and newer (supposedly better) radios. I was cleared for takeoff, asked for and got flight following from Van Nuys (VNY) to Camarillo (CMA) and proceeded west, climbing up to my desired 4,500 ft. VFR altitude. Since I had flight following, I had no altitude restriction due to the overlap of Burbank Class C: normally the climb is 2,500 until reaching Warner Center and then 4,500 (or higher) if desired.
I was climbing along a bit faster than Vy – fat dumb and happy – when So Cal called my tail number and said, “Skyhawk 123: Citation… no longer a factor. Skyhawk 123 I called you four times to tell you to stop your climb.”
Looking up, I saw a jet, most likely the Citation, not more than 100 yards (probably closer to 50) above me doing a climbing right turn at my 6 o’clock. I still cringe when I think about it. I had (and still have) a delayed reaction to the seriousness of the encounter. The good news (if it is good news) is I’ll take a minor fender bender on the ground to a mid-air any day. I was awarded a mulligan by the Sky Gods.
What to do about it?
Here are some details gleaned by both experience (I have about 240 hours) and research:
- The plane had a different tail number so the old, familiar tail number didn’t apply. The different tail number may have contributed to my non-response.
- The airplane had better climb characteristics and I had low time as PIC in it.
- I was not thoroughly familiar with the radios.
- I did not keep a sterile cockpit after departing the airport. I was too busy with radios or yakking with my passenger to do proper scans, something that’s always necessary, especially near an airport.
Instead of assessing my lack of focus and prescribing a total attitude adjustment, I kept on the flight with the impaired mindset. I did not have my game face on. I was not paying proper attention to the outside world. It was complacency and overconfidence in its most blatant form. “Hey, I can fly this thing. Ordinarily I do very well; muscle memory aloft is automatic. I train a lot.” On this flight, the proper focus was absent.
In conclusion, I can only offer up the following remedies: keep a sterile cockpit, especially around airports and in an aircraft in which you don’t have a lot of time. Familiarize yourself with any new (improved?) radios. If time and money permit, take a CFI up to help you work the radios and nav equipment. This particular unit required a very hefty push to change from standby to active status. The button had a tendency to stick sometimes.
Locate an owners’ manual for the radio in the local FBO or online and study it.
In busy airspace, keep your focus.
When we drive, the law states that if we rear-end the car in front of us, we’re at fault. We drive in our crowded streets and freeways with the majority of our eyes on the car directly in front of us. Most of Southern California is stop-and-go traffic and I’m sure it’s not too different elsewhere. We need to break this habit while in the air at least to the extent that it’s not our sole focus.
We must not fly with blinders on. If things are not going well and a series of bad stuff develops, consider ending the flight. As a student I ended flights with instructors when things weren’t going well and knew that the next one would be better.
As an older (hopefully not bolder) pilot I will do the following:
My next few flights will be with my CFI to work on outside peripheral scans and other vision, radio work and practicing proper aeronautical decision making around the airport. I have taken the stance that I will attack this batch of pilot errors head-on, learn from the near-miss and be sure it never happens again. If I feel impulsive, I will slow down and analyze first. I was able to locate online eye exercises that enhance peripheral vision and I practice them. I eat foods that are healthy for vision: carrots and lots of citrus. My eyeglasses Rx is current. I am treating this scenario as if preparing for my checkride. I have had folks ask me to fly with them either as PIC or as a safety pilot and I want to be up to the task.
With the 2020 ADS-B mandate on the horizon, eyes being outside during this expected learning curve will be more critical than ever.
Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org