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It was almost 42 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. The promise of perfect flying weather at the Reno Air Races motivated me to take a new Mooney M20J from Hayward to Reno.
I was always very comfortable in a Mooney. I bought my first one with only 125 hours in my log book. I spent many hours becoming comfortable with the entire flight envelope of this fabulous airplane. At the time of this incident – September 15, 1980 – I had accumulated about 200 hours in a Mooney.
I asked one of my friends in San Jose if he wanted to spend a couple days at Stead watching the Air Races. He is not a pilot but had ridden with me several times and enjoyed watching for traffic and doing some basic navigation. I have previously flown to the Reno Airport for the Air Races and I knew it was going to be very busy in the cockpit. I was happy to have another set of eyes. As it turns out, he probably saved my life.
We departed Hayward (KHWD) and did a short hop to Sacramento Executive (KSAC) to take on a full load of fuel. I assumed a long and complicated VFR arrival into the Reno/Stead Airport (KRTS). The airport in Reno is shared by Air National Guard, commercial traffic, plus all the people flying in for the races.
We got stacked up in a holding pattern above Truckee and, after about 45 minutes of circling and descending and circling, we were cleared for a VFR approach into Reno. The wind was strong out of the south – 18kts gusting to 25kts. The runway configuration at Reno was perfect for landing on runway 16. A long runway plus the head wind rendered the density altitude a non-issue.
I was listening very carefully to the controller and all the other traffic. The controllers were doing a great job sequencing everyone as I approached Reno. I asked my friend to be alert for traffic. As PICs. we are ultimately responsible for proper spacing and traffic avoidance.
We were given a right base entry with a long final. The long final was my opportunity to monitor the traffic behind me since all traffic ,commercial and military, was using the same runway. I reported I could see the traffic ahead of me and heard the airplane behind me saying that he had a visual on me. Everyone around me was maintaining good spacing.
The tower cleared me to land when I was on short final and just then my observant friend yelled, “we’re descending onto a twin!” The twin was below me and slightly to the right so I never saw it.
I made an immediate left turn, hit full power, and retracted the flaps. I called the tower and, as calmly as I could, said, “Mooney making a left turn due to a twin under me”. My first thought was, “where did this twin come from?” I quickly reviewed all the tower communication to the airplanes around me and never did hear a twin in any of the calls.
The tower asked my intentions. I asked for clearance to land on runway 25, the crosswind runway. I was already on a downwind for this runway. After a short pause, the tower asked if I was aware of the crosswind. “Affirmative”, I replied. He asked me if I could stop short of the runway 16 intersection. “Affirmative”, I replied. The next thing I heard was, “Mooney – cleared to land runway 25.”
With the surge of adrenaline and being hyper aware of my environment, I made a perfect crosswind landing and turned onto the taxiway. I stopped short of runway 16 and contacted Ground Control. He asked me if I wanted to file a report on this incident. I replied, “Negative – I just want to find a place to park and get to the Air Races.” He cleared me to cross runway 16 and asked me to taxi to the base of the tower where someone would meet me.
I taxied to the tower and a flag man helped me locate a spot. After shutdown he helped me tie down the airplane. He asked me how long I was going to be at the races. I told him my plan was two days. He then said the fuel, parking fees, and taxi cab to the races was complementary as a thank you for avoiding an endless investigation and a paperwork nightmare.
My friend and I reviewed the events and his memory was the same as mine – we never heard any radio calls from a twin. Who was the twin talking to? I was right above it and to the left and no one saw me? If the twin was on the same frequency, the clearance to land and my response would have been clearly heard, especially since I responded to the tower on short final.
The airplane Gods were smiling on me that day. My friend saw the twin before it was too late. I instantly reacted with all the lessons my instructor drilled into me and my comfort level with the capabilities of the Mooney helped me successfully complete the flight. I never did see the twin land nor do I know if anyone talked to the twin pilot about this incident.
We had a great time at the air races and the return flight was uneventful. I eventually purchased another Mooney out of my great love and respect for Al Mooney’s fantastic flying machine.