This very near-miss incident took place several years ago on a VFR approach to Archerfield (YBAF), in Queensland, Australia, a usually busy Class D general aviation training airfield adjacent to the state capital city of Brisbane, and it haunts me to this day. As a way of talking it out, I tender it here for my fellow pilots to read and consider and perhaps comment on.
At the time, I was working as an instructor on the lightweight Jabiru LSA aircraft, which were manufactured in Bundaberg (YBUD), also in Queensland. On the day in question, I was tasked with taking a student on a VFR Nav into Archerfield for his first foray into controlled airspace as part of an exercise that would then take us east to the Pacific coast and finally north along the VFR route around the Brisbane International airport and back to base. It was a total flight distance of around 400 nm.
The aircraft assigned for the flight was a J120, the most compact of all of the Jabirus, and as we shall see that small size may have been particularly important. (I should note here that the J120 is not sold in the US. It has an 85 hp 4-cylider engine and a gross weight of 1,100 pounds.)
The pre-flight planning and the flight to Archerfield itself all proceeded smoothly and soon we were cruising down the VFR lane of entry at a stately 100 KIAS, where we duly made our initial call to Archer Tower at the primary inbound reporting point (TV towers) and proceeded to the next reporting point (Centenary Bridge), maintaining 1500 ft.
Ops normal, we were cleared to descend to circuit height, to join right downwind for RWY 28R, and our traffic was given as a Cessna 172 late downwind. This approach from the north lines you up for downwind for 28R with just a slight left turn from the inbound track. We turned and commenced our descent, lining up with the extended downwind leg as we did so. I used to work out of Archerfield and I am very familiar with the field.
My student and I both scanned ahead of us along the downwind track for our traffic without success. I concluded that the 172 had to be about to turn base so we should soon see the flash of the wing as it turned, after which we could report it as sighted, when out of the corner of my eye I saw what I would only realize much later was our traffic – late crosswind, still climbing and about to turn downwind and fly right into us!
The 172 was close enough that I could see the side of the pilot’s face quite clearly, and our position was ever so slightly lower than where the left main wheel must have been!
Try this: lie beside the left main wheel of a parked 172 and look up at the windshield – that is the view that I had at 1,000 ft and 100 KIAS and it is still etched in my memory. In 35 years of flying I have never been anywhere near that close to another aircraft in flight and I hope never to be that close ever again.
Our wing had to be mere inches away from the left main wheel at most. I suspect that had we been in a larger aircraft our wing would have made contact with some part of the 172 gear.
In the fraction of a second that I had to consider our options, it seemed that down was the only choice so I took control from my student and nudged the stick forward and we dropped a hundred feet or so. I doubt that even a full second elapsed between my sighting the 172, avoiding it, and being in clear air again. I looked around and could not see the 172 anywhere within my range of sight (the curse of the high-wing aircraft), so I slowly eased the little Jabiru back up to circuit height at about mid-downwind. At this stage I had still not registered that the 172 was likely to be our traffic; I fully expected our traffic to still be ahead of us as advised.
Needless to say my adrenaline was pumping fairly well at this point. My student meanwhile had not seen the 172 at all from his seat so he was not immediately aware of how close to certain disaster we had just been, whereas I was very much aware and was still trying to work out how the 172 got to be where it was. I still did not equate it with the traffic that I was still expecting to see well ahead of us on late downwind as advised, and I concluded for the moment that it must have been another aircraft that was transiting the area without making any calls.
Back to business: aviate, navigate, communicate. We continued downwind, called base, called final and had a lively debate with the lady in the tower about being number two when we were in fact number one and our traffic as advised was nowhere in sight and not making any radio calls. She was quite adamant that we were the 172. To be fair to her, we were a white high-wing aircraft, a description that also applies equally to most 172s.
We were finally cleared to land from a very short final and after doing so received the dreaded “call the tower” instruction. By the time we had vacated the active and changed frequency to Archer Ground, I had still not heard any calls from the 172.
I made the call and got a polite but firm reminder that I should advise the tower if traffic was not sighted, but I still could not put our advised traffic and the 172 that had almost hit us into the same place in my mind and I did not even mention it. My thought processes were still sufficiently scrambled at that point. All I knew was that we had come very close to disaster and only dumb luck and maybe instinct had saved us. I apologized meekly and hung up the phone.
We fueled up then took a break and did some visiting around the airport before departing for the return leg of our flight. My student was still largely unaware of how close we had come, and I was still digesting the enormity of the whole event. I mentally compartmentalized the event for later study and got on with the business of instructing.
The trip home was uneventful and in fact was very pleasant. Who doesn’t love flying along the coast on a sunny Queensland day?
It took me several weeks of soul-searching to work out what had happened, and this was it at least as far as I could determine: Archer Tower had advised our traffic as being late downwind when in fact it was late crosswind and on a direct collision course with us. Perhaps they lost sight of the 172 from the tower, maybe the pilot did a practice engine failure after takeoff which delayed their progress around the pattern. I will never know. What I do know is that we very nearly died that day.
Perhaps I should have not fixated on looking for the traffic where we were advised it was, but the mental picture I got from Archer Tower was that there was only one other aircraft in the pattern and it was well ahead of us on late downwind. I certainly did not anticipate any other traffic in the CTA that could have conflicted with our inbound track.
Did I fail in my duties as a pilot and an instructor that day? Did I put too much faith in the traffic advisory from the tower? Was I being overly familiar because it was my old home field? How could I have done it better? Perhaps readers will add their thoughts to the comments section below.