Two times I didn’t die in an airplane – but came close

Case #1

I was 18 when I was training for the private pilot rating, and it was 1964. I was a pretty good student and followed the recommendations – always. One time, however, this didn’t provide the protection it should have.

At Hanscom Air Force Base, a joint civil-military controlled field (KBED), I was shooting touch-and-goes on Runway 5. I was cleared for another one, did the approach right, landed and took off just before the intersection with Runway 11-29. Maybe 100 yards before. And all was well with the world.

T-1
When one of these goes by at over 100 knots, you notice.

Suddenly, as I was climbing through 50 feet or so, a twinjet trainer (like a business jet, not a T-38) came screaming in from the left along Runway 29. It went through the intersection with 5-23 at over 100 knots and flew away. I was so close that I went directly through the wake – BOOM BOOM – with about a half-second between the percussions. I was OK, but shaken.

I picked up the mic and transmitted, in truly professional fashion, “What the hell was THAT??” to the tower. And they replied to land my plane and come to the tower to discuss. To my eternal regret, I followed directions and said nothing further. That, in fact, was their intent: not to have the incident on the tower tapes.

The visit to the tower was totally meaningless and inconclusive. Their explanation: they had given an Air Force trainer a “blanket clearance” to do instrument approaches. At that age and at that experience, I had no idea that a 50-foot altitude was breaking their minimums.

So I let it go, and did nothing further. Hell, I was 18 and only a student pilot. What would you have done?

Case #2

Twenty years later, I was entering the pattern at Lawrence Municipal Airport (KLWM) in a Cessna 172. At that time, it was an uncontrolled airport so again, I was following the recommendations. I did a 45-degree entry just before midfield, joining the left downwind for runway 5 (it’s always runway 5 for me, I guess). I was at pattern altitude, approaching the end of the runway and preparing to turn base.

Standard airport traffic pattern
Are you safe as long as you fly the pattern?

Then I saw a shadow above me, and lo and behold, a Piper (Cherokee or whatever) came into view directly above me, maybe 30 feet of altitude between us. He was slightly faster and was gliding down to pattern altitude. Twenty seconds later he was at my altitude, directly in front of me, and (without a rear-view mirror) was fat, dumb and happy preparing for his landing.

Obviously, I slowed my Cessna down. I landed after him, tied the plane down and went home. Today, I wonder if I should have gone over and punched him in the nose. I think yes.

Obviously, his glidepath hid my Cessna from him.

Conclusions

What can I say? Twice I followed the recommendations and almost got 100% dead. There would have been no doubt at all if I had collided with the jet trainer, and probably little doubt if I had a mid-air at 1,000 feet.

What lessons are to be learned?

  1. Never use any runway with a 5 on it.
  2. Don’t fly.
  3. Don’t trust any other pilots.
  4. Have a swivel installed in my neck, including both azimuth and elevation.
  5. Expect that approaching the airport is the most dangerous phase of any flights.

Of all these, number 5 is the one that seems to have practical use. I recommend it to my brother and sister pilots.

13 Comments

  • There is an error in the pattern diagram accompanying this article. When you depart the runway, you are on the Departure Leg, not the Upwind Leg.
    The Upwind Leg is on the other side of Downwind Leg, parallel to the runway.

  • Informative
    This supplements Mr. Collins’ recent article highlighting that by far, most midair collisions happen at non-towered airports. So add #6. Avoid non-towered airports whenever possible . May not be practical, but the “Airfacts” are the facts !

  • What about listening out? I’ve worked at controlled and uncontrolled places and THE most effective strategy for avoiding colliding with another aircraft is listening out. I doesn’t matter if ATC has your back or not (e.g. is it their responsibility or yours…as they will still be fat, dumb, and happy in their chair, potentially facing a manslaughter charge, and then fat, dumb, and happy, in prison, you will be dead), nor whose fault it is, the old adage of see and avoid MUST be followed in todays environment with HEAR and avoid!!!!

  • Listening works fairly well if all aircraft have and use radios and proper radio calls. A crop duster nearly landed on top of my instructor a couple of years ago… and I mean nearly. The instructor was with a student and was doing everything correctly, including a standard pattern with proper radio calls. Neither the student nor the instructor (who were in a high wing aircraft) were able to see the ag plane until the aircraft and shadow passed immediately overhead on short final. The duster pilot did not use his radio for either listening or calling. He said he ‘didn’t see’ the airplane he nearly landed on while using a (very) non-standard and truncated traffic pattern. The airport manager had a rather heated discussion with the ag pilot. Neither seeing nor listening will prevent all accidents, but if everyone complied with the rules (both written and unwritten) the skies would be safer. I agree that we should both look and listen… constantly.

  • I have been flying for about 34 years and have had about seven really close calls with other aircraft. About half of them were missed by Approach/Departure Control while squaking and talking. As we all know the small general aviation aircraft are given traffic advisories when the controlers have time, otherwise it is see and avoid as always. Two years ago I added ADS-B “in” & “out” to my plane. Now I know how many other close calls that I never saw probably occurred over the years. When there is busy air traffic in the Anchorage area, I tend to change either heading or altitude to avoid a potential conflict with other aircraft about half of my flights. Most of them are coming from an angle I can not see visually. The automatic voice warning feature has saved me about three times in the last two years since I am not fixated on the ‘in” screen when lining up for an approach to landing. I have heard other pilots with ADS-B “in” & “out” say they won’t fly without it and now I am one of them. It isn’t a fix all, but it is a great tool to help us avoid mid airs. It does many more things as well, but the traffic alerts alone is worth the cost.

    • +1 for ADS-B. We had some issues with ours when it was first installed. This necessitated a lot of test flights to come to the root cause (software issue with Garmin and Foreflight). So I spent a series of CAVU, off hours, week days flying and testing.

      Tuesday afternoon, 2pm, uncontrolled fields around, no victor airways, no real airspace issues, just a big open patch of sky to tool around in circles and test. The result?

      I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a patch of sky to myself for testing. There are airplanes everywhere! And they all started flying right when I installed ADS-B. How strange! Everybody within 100 miles must have bought a new airplane that week. They certainly weren’t there before.

  • If you are doing touch and goes on runway 5, heading in the 2:00 direction relative to 12:00 North, the jet trainer (1st attempt at death) screaming in from the left has to be on the approach to runway 11, not 29. Minor point, interesting article, glad you’re still with us.

  • More instruction in proper radio technique, please!
    Please do not identify me or my airport, I want to avoid embarrassing others.

    Working on a seemingly endless “project” in my hangar, I keep my handheld on the bench, turned on. Our regional non-towered airport has probably more than half its traffic from a nearby flight school’s students, with and without instructors, practicing take-offs and landing. So we have a plethora of communications problems displayed for us to criticize. I do not recall anyone uttering a correction on the radio.

    Two errors are either too much or too little information. I recall as a low time private pilot calling the contract tower from the general aviation ramp at a smallish regional airport, telling him my location and intentions.
    The seemingly bored controller responded, “Gee, thanks for sharing!” Evidently I had told him too much, more than he wanted—or needed, to hear.”

    I often use that, including my embarrassment for being long winded, to remind fellow pilots to be concise while telling the tower, or other traffic—for that matter, what they need to know. It doesn’t come naturally for most of us know. I know that from my own continued need to speak concisely—and clearly.

    The second error is mumbled or too exited speech. I often insist that all public speakers should go to radio announcer school. I believe I was once told I should practice with a tape record. No speaker or singer wants to hear himself on a tape recorder! But it would help.

    At minimum, before each flight why not practice, rehearse—if you will, with a dead mike, or over the intercom, what calls you are likely to need to make. And why not ask others at your airport if, when you make calls you can be easily heard and understood?

    It could save a lot more than embarrassment or a call from the tower with, “Gee, thanks for sharing!”

    Mike Smith
    Somewhere in Virginia

  • Oops! Rule Number One, never hit “send” without careful and repeated attempts to rid the piece of typographical errors! My bad!

    MS

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