Dear NASA: learning from my mistakes

The Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) is where maintenance technicians, pilots, controllers, etc. can anonymously report inadvertent violations of regulations or unsafe conditions which resulted from their action (or inaction). In exchange for our candor, the FAA agrees not to take certificate action against us – mostly.

I have never been deterred from submitting an ASRS report for a transgression, mistake or bad decision. And I’ve had plenty of material to work with.

Confirmation Bias: occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs.” (Psychology Today)

Not everything outlandish in California resides on the coast. About 20 years ago, my wife and I took a Cessna 150 into a private airstrip located in the Sacramento delta called Funny Farm. The name did not disappoint. Its landing surface was eclectic. Some parts were grass, others were dirt and, with a broad enough definition of “pavement,” some was that. I managed to land and taxi onto the grass adjoining the runway before burying one of the main wheels in a ground squirrel burrow.

While I vainly tried to dislodge it with the towbar, my wife hailed a man and his young son from across the runway to lend a hand. The gentleman introduced himself as Mr. Behne. He was owner (and presumptive king) of the Funny Farm. The two of them had been working on a dull, weathered, Temco Swift that was going to be his son’s personal ride. He said his son was proficient in the airplane, but Mr. Behne wanted to go through it thoroughly before he flew it alone. The boy appeared to be about 14. I was greatly impressed because I remembered stories from my own youth about the Swift being a handful to land.

After we freed up the 150, Mr. Behne showed us around the field. At that time it was a ramshackle collection of out buildings housing airplane parts, work benches, and projects in different stages of completion. Everyone was friendly in a rustic, old boy sort of way. Mr. Behne had big plans for the property, though. They included an upscale fly-in community and a water skiing lake. We finally said our goodbyes and took off for home.

Funny Farm airport
With a name like Funny Farm, you never know what might happen.

The trip remained a pleasant memory until, a year later, after several days of rain, ceilings lifted enough to make a VFR excursion. Why not pay a visit to the Funny Farm, I thought? The trip up was uneventful. I found the property after a few minutes of poking around and set up in a standard traffic pattern. The reason I’d had difficulty identifying the field was the brand new paved asphalt runway – smooth, glistening, beckoning. Coming out of the base turn I began to realize how narrow it was. But I’d landed on narrow runways. On short final I could see sheets of plastic laid out on the approach end of the pavement. Whatever they covered, I would touch down beyond them.

Rounding into the flare, rows of freshly planted trees began zipping along a few feet from the wing tips. They were about eight feet tall, spaced 10 or 20 feet apart. Well, that explained why the runway was so narrow. As the airplane rolled to a stop, everything fell into place. This wasn’t a runway – I just landed on somebody’s street!

In near panic, I disconnected the shoulder harness and leaped from the step. On my right, the old decrepit runway was paralleling the street. On the left a person was approaching from a connecting driveway. My mind raced to come up with a rational explanation for what I’d just done. Three things stood in the way: the airplane, the street, and me standing on it. The gentleman turned out to be a carpenter. He’d been working on a palatial house under construction at the end of the driveway. He looked at the 150, then at me. Then raised his arm and pointed to the runway saying, “Most people land over there,”

Today if someone does something in public they wish they hadn’t, it will likely get recorded on a cellular phone. My incident preceded all that, but I still wasn’t out of the woods. There were two people who knew what just happened. Only one of us could be reliably expected to keep it to himself. I resolved to do whatever was necessary to maintain that fellow in my sight.

There was no possibility of dragging the airplane through the sea of mud separating the street from the runway. So I prevailed on my new friend to help push the airplane back up the street. Near the end I watched the wheels roll over those plastic strips, bright orange and laid out in an “X” pattern. Before engine start, I instructed him to go back to the driveway and stand a safe distance from the street. He promised to wait there until I was safely up and away.

That evening I filled out NASA form 277, wondering whether the people who read these have a sense of despair or a sense of humor.

A couple of years later, a French Magister jet set down at our local field. It drew quite a crowd as it pulled up to the Jet-A pump. The canopy unlatched, swung open, and out stepped Mr. Behne wearing a worn T-shirt and shorts. He took on a bit of fuel, taxied back, and took off, leaving a trail of burned kerosene and the low rumble only a pure turbojet can make. That was the last time I saw him, but not the Magister.

Much later, on a Coast Guard Auxiliary Aviation patrol over the Sacramento delta, we passed near the Funny Farm. I told my colleagues I’d once landed there (but not the context) and asked them to fly over it. Mr. Behne was as good as his word. There were now three massive homes set back from the street. The street itself was all but invisible beneath the now-grown trees. The 1900’ runway was newly surfaced and sported real airport markings. Just to the west of the runway, you could see the unmistakable silhouette of a Magister jet. When I pointed it out, one of the pilots asked, “How’d they get that thing in there?” and the other retorted, “On a flatbed truck.”

Maybe, but I doubt it.

Obstinacy: “unyielding or stubborn adherence to one’s purpose” (Dictionary.com)

McClellan Park (MCC) represents one of the more successful transfers of a military base’s assets to civilian use. For a time I commuted by air to a job located at the south end of the base. Like other uncontrolled fields, traffic conflicts were negotiated between pilots.

747 takeoff
Not the airplane for a game of chicken.

A few months into my commuting routine, Evergreen Airlines set up a maintenance base at McClellan for its 747 freighters. I only encountered one of them in flight, but it was memorable.

I’d gotten a late start and a stiff head wind put me even farther behind. Since my route of flight lined up nicely with McClellan’s north runway, I called a straight-in approach five miles out. At two miles, I heard a 747 call “inbound ILS” landing on the south runway. That would put them eight or ten miles out. I didn’t see a problem. I’d beat them in, and clear the runway with plenty of time. That said, I was irritated at the freighter crew who made no attempt to coordinate their arrival in spite of my repeated position calls.

I was an ant on the picnic table who knows he got there first even as the sun is blocked out by someone’s thumb. They seemed not to understand, or chose to ignore, an approach clearance and a handoff to advisory frequency do not constitute a clearance to land! I called “one and one half mile final” then listened – nothing. I told myself I’d be happy to work with them if they would simply acknowledge me.

But they would not just push me off the approach. The landing lights waxed brighter and the airframe materialized out of the haze. My original thought had been to land short and taxi back. I could see by now that wouldn’t work. The next exit was 2000 feet farther down, but was angled and could be taken at speed.

I called “one mile” as the Sacramento River slipped leisurely beneath. The Boeing continued in silence. We promulgated this ridiculous bluff with dream-like symmetry, flaring and touching down within seconds of each other at opposite ends. The 747 was well into its landing roll when I finally cleared the runway.

I was confident we’d individually and collectively violated several paragraphs in 14 CFR. While it would be hard to argue these weren’t willful, at least NASA would get to read my version first. Since then I’ve wondered what happens when NASA gets two reports of the same incident. And, if the 747 captain submitted one, what it said.

2 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing! Im very happy you survived the MCC incident (granted; 10,600 ft is pretty generous). Did you ever ascertain whether either the 747 or you were on the wrong freq?

  • As you hint, survival was never in question. What was lacking was basic airmanship and common courtesy on both sides.

    As for the frequency, the 747 was broadcasting and I was receiving so we were paired.

    Part of the problem may have been my expectations. The Coast Guard flew C-130s from the north side of the field and I routinely coordinated my northbound arrival with their southbound departures. These crews were a joy to work with on the CTAF. The 747 crew might rarely (or never) have flown into an uncontrolled field and may simply have been unsure how to handle conflicting traffic.

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