One of those days I should have stayed home

In a ten-day span pockmarked by GA incidents and accidents, a WWII era T-6 wound up engulfed in flames on the Southern California 101 Freeway; other aircraft landed on city streets and highways without incident and wound up on the local evening news. Yours truly joined the ranks of those involved in a GA mishap.

Wingtip damage
A damaged wingtip, and a damaged ego.

I had had a very subpar flight and, after exiting the taxiway, I decided to take a short cut. The problem with short cuts is that most of them don’t work, especially on airports. I had made a bad crosswind landing (didn’t kick out the crab in time), then saw a gap between two parked helos, so I slowed down to below crawl speed, heard and felt the sickening thump, shut down, cursed loudly, and inspected the damage.

The following weeks were full of phone calls, forms, embarrassing conversations with insurance claims adjusters, airplane owners and the relevant FBOs. Feeling like I had let myself down was an added bonus. I had obviously committed one of the five deadly sins: impulsivity. Breaking the position light was indeed humbling.

On to the next flight. The airplane I had rented was not the usual one; it had a little more power, and newer (supposedly better) radios. I was cleared for takeoff, asked for and got flight following from Van Nuys (VNY) to Camarillo (CMA) and proceeded west, climbing up to my desired 4,500 ft. VFR altitude. Since I had flight following, I had no altitude restriction due to the overlap of Burbank Class C: normally the climb is 2,500 until reaching Warner Center and then 4,500 (or higher) if desired.

I was climbing along a bit faster than Vy – fat dumb and happy – when So Cal called my tail number and said, “Skyhawk 123: Citation… no longer a factor. Skyhawk 123 I called you four times to tell you to stop your climb.”

Looking up, I saw a jet, most likely the Citation, not more than 100 yards (probably closer to 50) above me doing a climbing right turn at my 6 o’clock. I still cringe when I think about it. I had (and still have) a delayed reaction to the seriousness of the encounter. The good news (if it is good news) is I’ll take a minor fender bender on the ground to a mid-air any day. I was awarded a mulligan by the Sky Gods.

What to do about it?

Here are some details gleaned by both experience (I have about 240 hours) and research:

  • The plane had a different tail number so the old, familiar tail number didn’t apply. The different tail number may have contributed to my non-response.
  • The airplane had better climb characteristics and I had low time as PIC in it.
  • I was not thoroughly familiar with the radios.
  • I did not keep a sterile cockpit after departing the airport. I was too busy with radios or yakking with my passenger to do proper scans, something that’s always necessary, especially near an airport.

Instead of assessing my lack of focus and prescribing a total attitude adjustment, I kept on the flight with the impaired mindset. I did not have my game face on. I was not paying proper attention to the outside world. It was complacency and overconfidence in its most blatant form. “Hey, I can fly this thing. Ordinarily I do very well; muscle memory aloft is automatic. I train a lot.” On this flight, the proper focus was absent.

Falcon jet
Not what you want to hit while climbing out on a VFR flight.

In conclusion, I can only offer up the following remedies: keep a sterile cockpit, especially around airports and in an aircraft in which you don’t have a lot of time. Familiarize yourself with any new (improved?) radios. If time and money permit, take a CFI up to help you work the radios and nav equipment. This particular unit required a very hefty push to change from standby to active status. The button had a tendency to stick sometimes.

Locate an owners’ manual for the radio in the local FBO or online and study it.

In busy airspace, keep your focus.

When we drive, the law states that if we rear-end the car in front of us, we’re at fault. We drive in our crowded streets and freeways with the majority of our eyes on the car directly in front of us. Most of Southern California is stop-and-go traffic and I’m sure it’s not too different elsewhere. We need to break this habit while in the air at least to the extent that it’s not our sole focus.

We must not fly with blinders on. If things are not going well and a series of bad stuff develops, consider ending the flight. As a student I ended flights with instructors when things weren’t going well and knew that the next one would be better.

As an older (hopefully not bolder) pilot I will do the following:

My next few flights will be with my CFI to work on outside peripheral scans and other vision, radio work and practicing proper aeronautical decision making around the airport. I have taken the stance that I will attack this batch of pilot errors head-on, learn from the near-miss and be sure it never happens again. If I feel impulsive, I will slow down and analyze first. I was able to locate online eye exercises that enhance peripheral vision and I practice them. I eat foods that are healthy for vision: carrots and lots of citrus. My eyeglasses Rx is current. I am treating this scenario as if preparing for my checkride. I have had folks ask me to fly with them either as PIC or as a safety pilot and I want to be up to the task.

With the 2020 ADS-B mandate on the horizon, eyes being outside during this expected learning curve will be more critical than ever.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

5 Comments

  • Good on you for admitting your errors. And for bettering your skills. I fly out of VNY too. Believe me. It’s very difficult to spot traffic, especially single engine craft. At close to 12000 hours, I’m still learning. Or at least relearning what I forgot. My first flight instructor always said “fly a little, look a little”. It works just fine in business jets.
    Never stop learning!

  • Andy,

    I’ll add my voice to Eric’s. I think examining your mistakes is one of the hallmarks of a competent pilot.

  • I feel your pain. I’m an older student at 66. I’ll probably have my check ride within the month. I have been continually missing tower calls to the great annoyance of my instructor. After my latest missed call, I had my hearing checked. It seems that I have a serious hearing loss. I can’t stress enough the importance of vision and hearing readiness, good hydration, and good diet for us older pilots. I feel dull when I don’t take care of myself. Thanks for your article and I’ll be sure to take care. You too and we’ll both be safer.

  • As a pilot for 50 years in general aviation you would think I would know better. However I sympathize completely and understand completely your mistakes. It is the mark of an excellent pilot to learn from his mistakes. Based on that I have learned a lot. Just two weeks ago I made a test flight with my airplane to ensure that the newly installed autopilot was working properly. It had been raining here in California for a long time so I had not flown for a while. But the sun was shining and it was a good day to test the new autopilot. I did not get off the ground before I made my first mistake.

    I’m based in Reid Hillview airport in San Jose California. (KRHV) that day they were using runways 13 R/L and not the usual 31 R/L. I taxied out and did the normal run ups and everything was working fine except apparently my brain. I was cleared for takeoff on runway 13 left. The closest runway to the run up area. I dutifully taxied right on past 13 left charging forward to 13 right. The tower called me and said I missed the runway. Great. They cleared me for takeoff on 13 right after my apology and I charged onward.

    The autopilot went just fine. However coming back to the airport I displayed another screw loose in my head. After checking in with the tower 10 miles southeast I was told to make right traffic for runway 13 right. Well yes I was busy in the cockpit but that is no excuse, fly the airplane first and foremost. I am so used to taking off from runway 31 right that the mental traffic pattern I had in my head got backwards. So after about another minute slowing the aircraft down doing the checklist the tower calls me and says they have be lining up for the wrong runway. Again!!! Yep. So I made an immediate left turn to enter the downwind leg for the proper runway which is 13 right not 13 left.

    All the agony of it all. It’s a good thing the tower could not see the expression on my face. Here I am a commercial instrument rated pilot with thousands of hours of flight time over quite a few decades and I blew a runway assignment, a simple runway assignment because I was approaching the airport from a different direction to runways that are backwards to what I was used to. Gad!!

    So, do not feel too bad about what happened to you. It can happen to any of us at any time regardless of total flight time and number of years in aviation. So I hope my little story will help you and others deal with the fact that we all make mistakes.

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