A few of years back we upgraded our transponder to an FIS/ADS-B capable unit in anticipation of the FAA mandate. Like many, I think, the ADS-B traffic picture was a revelation to me. “Empty” airspace I’d bored through for decades was filled with targets—quite a few of them pointing at me!
Paranoia aside, it should not have been a surprise. I’d had my share of warnings, subtle and direct, over the years.
It was a rainy winter week in Southern California. But Sunday dawned bright and clear and filled with promise as the San Diego-Montgomery tower handed us off to SoCal departure. Our clearance took us up the coast over LAX thence to our first stop at Camarillo. My wife enjoyed an uncommonly clear view of the LA basin ringed by snow-capped mountains.
I reviewed the plate for Camarillo’s VOR 26 approach. It was a challenging approach for the unfamiliar with surrounding terrain and step-down fixes taken off the adjacent Fillmore VOR. But on this beautiful morning it would be a piece of cake. Half way down the approach course SoCal handed me off to Camarillo’s tower, where I received a rude surprise. The frequency was jammed. A single controller was handling a huge flock of VFR traffic in the pattern. Multiple attempts to break in failed to yield a reply.
We descended through the final approach fix. I put Fillmore out of my mind. My wife was now visibly concerned. “They know we’re coming,” I assured her. The missed approach was quickly fading as an option since it would fly us straight through the hornet’s nest ahead.
I was trying to gauge how far the tower was extending downwind traffic when a Cessna 180 flashed into the windscreen. It was close enough to see the corrugations on the ailerons! We initiated a steep turn away from the pattern and tracked outbound from the field (in absolute violation of our clearance). Safely away, I calmed down and began circling. Eventually the traffic slackened and we were able to contact the tower and obtain a landing clearance. The controller thanked us for our patience saying, “everybody wants to fly this morning.”
In the years that followed I’ve asked many ATC professionals what I should have done that morning—and gotten a different answer from each—including, “I have no idea.”
- We expect a lot from controllers, and they usually deliver—to the point where we discount the possibility they can be victims of task saturation.
- Even the most imaginative pilot can’t foresee every circumstance that might require early execution of a missed approach. After that day the first thing I review on an approach plate is the missed approach procedure.
- No matter how proficient a pilot, how good the weather, or straightforward the approach, no procedure is guaranteed to be a piece of cake.
A colleague and I were meeting a client at the Reid-Hillview Airport (RHV) in San Jose. RHV is located near the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay—just southeast of San Jose’s class C airspace. It was well after sunset when we taxied for departure with flight following to our destination in the Central Valley. Our planned route was to hug the western slope of the mountains ringing the bay until reaching Interstate 580 and then follow the highway through the pass into the Livermore Valley. Restricting altitude to 3000 ft. would buffer us from the commercial push descending into the bay above the pass.
Abeam the San Jose airport, ATC instructed me to fly “direct Tracy.” I read back the clearance and considered its implications. They were probably trying to keep us south of inbound traffic. Still, the controller knew our aircraft type and could infer its performance and the difficulty we’d have maintaining terrain separation on that clearance.
“Direct Tracy” came a second time, now with a more insistent tenor. Back then I would do whatever it took to comply with a clearance. I increased power and started the turn. But the sight was daunting. There were no visual cues, no visible ridge line, nothing. Even if my guess was good and we’d out-climb everything, a mechanical failure or other issue could put us into terrain right now—and I had a passenger depending on me. I stopped the turn and told ATC I was unable direct and asked for an alternative heading. A second voice came on frequency and instructed me to resume my previous heading and notify them of any changes.
I’ve made that flight many times during the intervening years and never experienced a similar conflict. I make sure to notify ATC of my intention to turn at I 580.
It’s been suggested that the initial controller was a trainee. Perhaps, but that misses the point. On a VFR clearance we alone are responsible for avoiding traffic and obstructions. ATC can’t work with robots, it needs pilots.
My instrument training did not reveal me to be an IFR prodigy. I endured a seeming endless barrage of criticisms and corrections as I lurched through timed approaches and NDB holds. On one memorable occasion though, I reigned victorious over my instructor.
To his credit, he’d instruct in any weather and Sumter, South Carolina, offered plenty that winter. On this day there was an indefinite ceiling and a half mile (optimistically) visibility. Before taxiing across an intersecting runway I broadcast my location and intentions. “You don’t need all those radio calls. Nobody’s flying today,” he grumbled. I added it to my list of offenses, then proceeded to the run-up area. Just as we began taxiing onto the runway a crop duster appeared out of the fog, touching down directly in front of us.
That airplane was being repositioned for maintenance by a local pilot navigating along roads and fence lines. I said nothing but gave my instructor the look. His response: “C’mon, that guy doesn’t even HAVE a radio.”
Years ago I was based, briefly, at the Fullerton airport in the LA basin. At that time the lowest fuel price in Southern California was at historic Flabob field in Riverside, where I periodically trekked to top off the tanks. While a short flight, it had challenges.
On this day the Fullerton tower cleared me for an east departure along the 91 freeway. Before reaching Riverside, the 91 threads its way through a canyon bounded on the north and south by Ontario’s and Santa Ana’s class C airspace. Flying below 2000 ft. guaranteed you wouldn’t violate it. But a lot of traffic flowed through the canyon and, a couple of weeks earlier, a Skyhawk collided with a 150 over Corona, killing five.
Returning from Flabob, my vigilance increased significantly when I picked up the 91 westbound and began to follow it into the constriction. After leaving the canyon I turned northward to put the 91 behind me. Minutes later, and safely away, I relaxed. Without the highway for guidance I’d navigate back through the haze using Fullerton’s localizer. I was tuning the frequency when something caught my peripheral vision, giving me a terrible start. I don’t know what it was or where it came from. It was big, blue, and passed directly beneath the left strut. By the time I could turn my head to look it had disappeared behind the airplane.
Today’s LA sectional chart contains a text block advising caution while in the 91 Freeway Corridor. It also provides a frequency for position reporting in the blind. All good advice, but conflicts can still happen anywhere.
If Your Fingers Get Tired
When you log a few hours in the IFR system you might go through a period of nonchalance. You might copy an altimeter setting from ATIS then transfer it to your panel altimeter. You might rotate the little knob until your fingers get sore wondering how the atmospheric pressure could change so much. Later ATC might ask, “say altitude,” and you’ll read it back from the altimeter. They will give you the current setting and you will confirm you have the setting (maybe with a little irritation). Then they will ask you to turn off your transponder. Before you do, you will take a good look at the actual setting in the window and realize it is off by exactly one inch of mercury! This error can place you a lot closer to obstructions, or opposite-direction traffic, than you ever want to be.
Now my pre-start checklist calls for setting the altimeter to the field elevation before ever obtaining a barometric altimeter setting. If the ATIS setting requires more than one turn of the knob, something is wrong.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
The obstacle departure procedure (ODP) is an unloved stepchild in the IFR system. It is a necessary evil to assure obstruction clearance (usually by a wide margin) in actual IMC… In VFR it is a frustrating drag on flight efficiency.
So, when “Cleared Marysville via the Tracy ODP…” came over the phone, my reaction was: the weather’s bad up north but it’s decent here! Why aren’t you giving me direct Linden? I’ve gotten that before. Modesto (the Tracy ODP) is a million miles in the wrong direction!
I assured ATC I could maintain visual terrain separation to the Linden VOR and my clearance was amended. Quite pleased with my negotiating talent, I departed runway 12 and began a climbing left turn toward Linden. On the takeoff roll I heard an aircraft broadcast, “inbound Tracy GPS 26.” That prompted me to bring up the traffic page on the GPS. We were still too low for ADS-B reception but I kept my eye on it.
When the display came to life it was filled with warnings that showed the two of us in exactly the same airspace. The pilot on the approach announced, “Breaking off.” In an instant I saw the airplane cross my front door pillar within 100 yards or so as I entered an evasive right turn—all the while broadcasting, “Please continue the approach, this was entirely my fault.”
“Not a problem,” he replied in the understatement of record that day.
Shaken, and deeply embarrassed, I continued the turn, full circle, until the nose pointed north toward Linden again. By now the other pilot was on the published missed approach, climbing and turning back east. I keyed the buttons necessary to center the OBS and then transferred the frequency for NorCal departure into the active box. On my next scan outside the cockpit I was aghast to see we were, once again, on a collision course and fairly close! A prompt left turn put me safely behind him by, maybe, an eighth mile.
NorCal gave no indication they’d observed these antics, and directed the remainder of the flight with their usual professional efficiency. By Sacramento I was in solid IMC and breathed a sigh of relief. Now traffic separation was someone else’s problem.
In retrospect, I could see the logic behind that clearance. ATC planned to climb me away from the airport until I was above any IFR training traffic before releasing me “as filed.”
- ATC has a larger, and more complete, picture of the airspace than pilots ever can. You may not agree with a clearance. May not like it. But, with rare exceptions, there is a good reason it was given.
- ADS-B is a marvelous tool for traffic avoidance. That said, it can be a distraction in some critical situations. It doesn’t make visual scanning obsolete.