Near miss in the pattern

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.)

J120 airplane
The J120 is not a large airplane, which may have saved this day in this case.

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.

Archerfield airport
Where is that 172?!

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.

Tags from the story

23 Comments

  • Try having a 737 tail 15 feet below your butt in a C182 at 10,000 feet. If I had not climbed ~30ft a second before I would have broadsided it at the wing root. No one on that plane saw me pilots or passengers when we met near Kelowna BC Canada.

  • You reported this to the ATSB, right???

    It is unfortunate that there is a strong culture in the Australian GA community of not reporting occurrences.

    • Nope. The prevailing culture in Aus aviation is usually punitive – whatever happens it will be your fault and never that of any public servant. In this case I think that the lone controller was probably downstairs getting a snack and just guessed at where the 172 was in the pattern.

  • I think your experience disproves the axiom that hindsight is always 20:20, something I suspect most thoughtful pilots already understand. Given human nature, some of your scanning was undoubtedly biased/re-directed “in the general direction of downwind ahead of your flight path,” by the tower’s traffic advisory…but there’s no way to ever know if – in the absence of that call – you’d’ve picked up the approaching crosswind traffic or not, never mind “earlier.” Some things just “are.”

    Like you, my nearest (known, dry chuckle) near-hit remains pretty clear – and oft-reviewed – in my mind too.

    I’ve a bit of difficulty trying to grasp “where the tower-person was coming from,” when she chewed on you for “failing to report.” Had the 172 departed the pattern without notifying her and she was embarrassed at not picking up that fact “from your failure to report it as ‘traffic-in-sight’,” whilst she continued to think you were it? Just curious, thanks.

    • Hi Bob. The tower person (in my view) simply failed to keep track of the only aircraft in the pattern prior to our arrival and because that aircraft presumably departed the pattern (after almost wiping us out) without advising her she wrongly assumed that we were the 172 – we were the first/only aircraft to report turning base and then final. As I mentioned in an earlier reply, whatever happens will always be your fault because ATC do not make mistakes.

      • Thank you for the reply…”something like that” was the only thing I was able to surmise that made any sense to me. “Roger that!” on the institutionalized bureaucratic wagon-circling “in this sort of situation.” (Sigh.)

        FWIW, by way of attempting explicit feedback regarding your article’s ending questions, my take from this distant remove is that so long as your overall scan “wasn’t asleep at the switch,” you were doing all that any pilot (instructor or not) could do under the circumstances. In power terms, I’m strictly a (glider–only-rated) safety pilot, but I’ve never intentionally stopped/reduced my paranoid “traffic out there?” scan, regardless of where I am in any cockpit. (It’s a self-preservation thing!)

        So, “introspect away” but I see no need to beat yourself up over this incident.

  • Just BTW: a big thank you to Air Facts, firstly for publishing my story, and secondly for finding a picture of Archerfield airport to go with my story. In my story we were flying towards the cameraman’s viewpoint on a right-hand downwind to land on RWY 28R which is the runway shown from a ‘high final’ perspective.

  • The old adage (I think from Oscar Wilde) for any pilot should be “Just because you are paranoid, it dosn’t mean THEY are not out to get you”

  • After my own adrenaline ceased shooting out of my ears in reading this piece, my sense is that even if you had advised tower that the called traffic wasn’t in sight (as they seemed to chastise you about) the result would have been no different, because the tower was at fault for failing to give you the accurate call out of the other traffic in the first place.

  • Ross, thank you for your story. It gives us one more reason to keep our head on a swivel and not always take what we hear at face value. This gives us even more reason for all of us to be actively giving position reports while approaching an airfield, while in the pattern, and upon departure. We should upon initial call even give our aircraft type and color so as to make it more likely others can really identify us and where we are in relation to them. I am reminded of a brief conversation I heard as a young boy of a pilot describing an encounter in the pattern at our small grass strip. Seems an arriving Stinson chose to make a straight in approach while in the process cutting off a Cub about to turn final. Needless to say it was a heated and flowery exchange to my ears as a kid. I think your assessment of this event was right on. The controller was obviously confused and gave inaccurate information. To bad they didn’t try to understand what you heard and saw.

  • If you would have repeated ATC’s reported traffic location ATC might have realized it told you late downwind instead of what they should have reported which was late crosswind. Maybe…

    • Hi Tom. The readback actually did include the traffic: “Archer Tower, Jabiru 1234 descending to join downwind for RWY 28R, traffic is a Cessna late downwind”. Didn’t help. 🙂

  • Ross – thank you also. It’s such an important topic. I found using vertical separation as a good safe-guard in both ATC and non-ATC locales. Once after calling a tower 10-15 out, I was told I was following a Mooney. I assumed I would not be catching a Mooney even though I was in a small twin. I nearly did – the Mooney had slowed significantly. I could have avoided that by asking the controller, who didn’t have radar, for the Mooney’s altitude and then keeping a higher altitude until in sight. Another case was departing a non-tower airport. I was departing to the east – another airplane was arriving from the east so we were converging head-on with neither in sight. We coordinated holding altitude 500 ft apart and used a prominent ridge east of the airport to report positions and progress. We finally made visual contact with safe separation.

  • Hi, Ross. As Bob W. said above, “Some things just ‘are.’ ” The system,still has much room for improvement. E.g., my article entitled, “Two Times I Didn’t Die in an Airplane – But Came Close” (http://airfactsjournal.com/2017/03/two-times-didnt-die-airplane-came-close/). My second example is different in detail, but right on point re in-pattern near collisions. (We can argue who had the closer call later.) Where was the system imperfect in my case? The 45-degree pattern entry rule, I was later informed, is not a rule but a recommended option. We’ll never know how many crashes is has / has not caused. My answer in the article? “#5. Expect that approaching the airport is the most dangerous phase of any flights.” There is no solution. Good Flying! Richard Tamir

  • Hello Ross,

    Thank you for sharing your story. Another explanation of what may have happened is that tower did loose track of the 172 and time after noting it on late downwind. It went on to complete that circuit and was on it’s next crosswind when you encountered it. No matter what, your story proves that expectancy can be a strong masker of reality and that WE must be ever vigilant of the airspace around our aircraft.

    Safe travels

  • Thanks for sharing this. My head swivel just improved.
    Ive just redoubled resistance to the traffic scan bias I sometimes fall into after a traffic call either by the tower, or other aircraft at an uncontrolled field. Guilty! Over the years, I’ve observed that those who share pattern position reports where uncontrolled or tower closed tend to be more accurate that those issued by a tower. And coincidentally, I recently adopted a technique mentioned, to fully identify myself by color and exact type.

  • When flying my old Aeronca Chief at uncontrolled airports, I sometimes gave radio calls as “Tan SLOW high wing Aeronca,” though I didn’t do that as often as I should. The worst risks of midair collisions that I’ve seen came at fly-in breakfasts/lunches and other events with lots of GA arrivals. Scary practices included no radio calls, bizarre pattern entries, straight-in entries when everyone else was using the FAA-recommended method, landing (or taking off!) opposite to all other traffic w/o calling intentions, and more. After one such goat-rodeo fly-in, my wife refused to go with me to any more. Upon reflection, I have to wonder why she let me continue going alone!

  • Hi Ross. Thanks for sharing. I have had numerous close encounters during my 50 years of flying and I can tell you that it is very scary and nerve racking. Most of the ones I have experienced were in light airplanes and happened without warning and I had no time to react. I too did not report them as I didn’t want any blame blemishing my record. As others have said, head on a swivel but still that was not enough to keep them from happening. You can only do your best and hope that it never happens again. Fly safe and enjoy every minute.

    Bob

  • Hi Ross. I come from a family of pilots, and like you got my ticket in 1977. I’ve also experienced the sudden awareness of nearness to death in a 50 foot near miss in a traffic pattern at a tower controlled airfield — #1 and cleared to land on a practice instrument approach under the hood — a story that perhaps also needs to be told someday.

    Now, at my age I am paranoid, and if ATC calls traffic I reply “Looking”, and “Negative Traffic” if I don’t see them. ADSB-in traffic helps a lot these days with knowing where to look…

    All in hindsight now, but you ask “How could I have done better?”. A “negative traffic” might have prompted the tower to take another look at the situation.

    All the best,
    Don W.

  • Hi Ross,
    thanks for sharing this scary story.
    As a result of several lets call them “interesting” experiences when joining controlled or radio serviced airfields, over the years I’ve developed a certain mistrust for traffic advisory, clearances, informations and position reports from other pilots (these can be surprisingly wrong).
    On one ocasion the tower cleared me to take off – I was at holding point – with an airplane on short final (!); I knew the other airplane was on final so I didn’t move and after a few seconds the tower corrected its call. Imagine what would have happened if I would have trusted the clearance?
    Especially at busy airfields you need to listen but also look twice.

  • One reason I am a strong proponent for in and out ADS-B eventually for ALL aircraft, as since we have installed it in our aircraft I am absolutely amazed, as have others that have ADS-B will attest, at how many aircraft you do NOT see. It has made it easier to determine and verify where everyone is in the pattern, AUGMENTING your continuous outside scanning.

    One aircraft coming at us, we moved higher to deal with it, went under us about 400 feet below, we never were able to spot it. Knowing well in advance of and aware of other aircraft around you, long before you can actually see them, you can maneuver up, down, left right to avoid conflicts.
    We were heading north one day, middle of nowhere, and had one come up from the right of us in our blindspot 4 o’clock position, that if not for the “Traffic” verbal warning in the headphones, quick glance at the Glass screen to see where it was closing on us, I pushing forward down out of the way. It would have been close and perhaps a mid air. The Cessna crossed over us as if they never saw us.

    And yes, totally agree, pilots must be trained to continue to aggressively scan, EVEN IF they ever make it required for one and all aircraft (even drones), as birds, (Eagles here in Alaska) for one, don’t have ADS-B out! 😉

  • I think it’s a good practice to report back – either affirm or negative – whenever one is given a traffic advisory. I’m guessing you do that regularly now. What seems to be a missed opportunity is the lesson your student didn’t get. It’s likely he picked up on your state of mind and urgency in maneuvering yet your article seems to indicate that he remained unaware of exactly what had nearly happened.

    • Hi Jim.

      Reporting back is my normal practice too but before I key the PTT I take the time to have a good look at where my traffic was reported and it was during that time that things suddenly went to heck. Given that the report had my traffic near the end of downwind I fully expected to see him turn any second (the ‘wing flash’) so I could report him as sighted. Viewing an aircraft from behind can be tricky as you know, nothing but an outline over a background of buildings and streets.

      Years of flying out of YBAF probably gave be a false sense of security too – every aircraft in their CTA is under positive control and the tower had always been accurate with their reporting of other aircraft positions.

      I did discuss this with my student in the post-flight debrief but you are right, it was a great learning opportunity missed although at least we are both alive to talk about it.

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