Just like most of our kind these days, I, too, did my basic helicopter pilot training on a neat R22.
Shortly after having soloed we moved “my” R22 from Stuttgart (EDDS) to Karlsruhe-Baden (EDSB) for a week. Compared to the flight school’s home base in Stuttgart, a quite busy airport with international flights to cities all over Europe and the world including Delta Air Lines Flight 117 to Atlanta, Karlsruhe-Baden is a pretty calm business airport with rather low landing fees. Yet it is a large one due to its former use as a German-Canadian Air Force Base. Even Lufthansa often uses EDSB for training flights, and has for a few years with their new A380 as well.
The R22 wasn’t exactly a match for those, but, for the same reasons, we decided to swab solo patterns from there.
The second day at Baden Airpark my mission was to circle all VFR reporting points surrounding the airport airspace D. Proudly having logged a total of roughly 28 helicopter flight hours until then, I started up and obtained taxi clearance to the helipad: “D-HAMR, clear to air taxi to helipad via Papa and Zulu, number 2 after a passing Piper.” When I lifted off and started to taxi out, the Piper had passed my taxiway already and was headed for the threshold of 03. After performing my pre-takeoff checks at the helipad, I reported ready for departure and was handed over from ground control to the tower.
“Helicopter Mike Romeo, cleared for takeoff 03, turn north immediately after takeoff and report November.”
“Mike Romeo, cleared for takeoff 03 turning north immediately, wilco.”
And I was on the go. Right after having passed the runway at merely 100 ft AGL, I heard ATC barking all over my headset: “Mike Romeo, are you crazy!! You weren’t cleared for takeoff!!”
I was baffled, and my confidence was gone in one second. I was pretty sure I had been cleared for takeoff, so all I could send over the air was: “Eh…Mike Romeo, sorry – come again?” No answer. I tried to think for a moment, but without being sure what actually I had done wrong, all I could do was to continue. Then the radio came to life again: “Helicopter Mike Romeo, switch to…”
After I had turned in the new frequency, I just got the usual instructions and answers to my transmissions in a calm, professional way, as if nothing had happened before. The longer my flight took, the more nervous I got, preparing myself for the bashing after landing that probably awaited me.
Finally, I had circled the entire airspace D and its VFR reporting points around the airport and performed a squeaky-clean approach and landing. It still seemed to take yonks till I had taxied to the parking area and shut down.
“What was the matter?” was the first thing I asked my instructor, who came ambling along totally relaxed. “Oh.” He pointed towards a Piper across the field, surrounded by two police men and the pilot apparently. “That guy was taking off right after you without clearance, right into the approach of a Boeing 737. They had to go around.” I hardly trusted my ears and my eyes, as I saw the last two letters of the Piper’s registration: D-E…MR.
The lucky guy here certainly was the controller, because he was sitting up there in his tower out of my reach. He had been unaware that he had two aircraft with the same last two registration letters at his hand. If there is no eventuality of confusion, the official phraseology allows to cut call signs to the last two letters, but, in a case like this, of course, the whole call sign must be used with each transmission! This might have contributed to the Piper pilot’s error; I don’t know.
Anyway, in the end the fact that that it had not been me outweighed my anger about the air traffic controller for turning one and a half hours of enjoyable helicopter flight into a jittering performance of duty for me.