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.
- Descending onto a twin – surviving a near miss - February 13, 2023
Thank you, Paul. Yet another reminder that the vast majority of mid-air collisions happen close to airports in day/VFR weather. My close call happened during a type-club fly-in. Festivities for that day included a flour-bombing contest. The briefing for participants was comprehensive, so I (thought I) knew what to expect. I loaded up the plane with the appropriate ordinance, as well as my wife and daughter.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, with almost no wind. Everyone in the plane was excited, and we were all chatting about the weather and scenery (vistas surrounding Cody, WY are among the world’s most stunning). As we turned downwind I immediately found the aircraft to follow in front of me and set my power to achieve the appropriate airspeed per the participant briefing. I noted that the leading aircraft was a bit farther away than I expected, but I decided I had perhaps started my downwind turn a bit late. We continued around the pattern, chatting merrily away, as I kept an eye on the plane in front of me. I watched it turn base, then started my base as it turned final, again per the participant briefing.
As I turned final I judged the separation between me and the leading plane to be exactly as briefed. I began setting up my “bombing” run, and had my bombardier ready the ordinance. I noted we were getting a bit high on glide path and made a significant power reduction to correct. Suddenly, another aircraft appeared directly in front of me—less than 50 feet in front of me. I felt the buffet as we descended through his wake turbulence.
Turns out that when I turned downwind my aircraft to follow wasn’t actually at pattern altitude, they were 150-200 feet low. That put them under my nose. The plane I spotted was in front of the plane I was supposed to be following. We and the aircraft I almost collided with on final apparently flew all the way around the pattern in perfect alignment, with near perfect airspeed control, with him just enough below and in front that I never saw him. We both turned base and final at nearly the same time, keeping that perfect alignment. I never saw him because I was focused on the airplane I was following. It was only after I made that aggressive vertical adjustment on final that he came into my view.
There were safety spotters on the ground watching the aircraft go around the pattern for this event, and they were supposed to notify pilots if they were getting to close to other aircraft. I spoke to the spotter after landing, and he said from his point of view it never appeared we were that close. I suspect he did not see me turning base and final earlier than I should have, and once we were on final the perspective made it difficult to judge relative distance between the two aircraft.
Whatever the reasons for the near calamity, the lesson was hammered home. Even in the absolute best weather conditions, even when everyone involved (supposedly) knows what they and everyone else is supposed to be doing, flying around in close proximity to other aircraft requires hyper vigilance. That was also the day the full implications for the term “sterile cockpit” really hit home. Pattern operations are not the time to chat about the weather and the magnificent view…
I too had a ‘close encounter of the worse kind’ when flying A-10 Warthogs out of Myrtle Beach AFB, SC (MYR). I was getting my annual instrument check and, since the A-10 is a single-seat fighter, the evaluator was flying his Warthog in a chase position while also clearing for the flight; I was keeping my eyes on the gauges, simulating IMC conditions.
In the chase position, the evaluator maintains about 15-20 feet of wingtip clearance while stacked slightly lower than the pilot being evaluated (i.e., me). This is close enough to monitor my airspeed and altitude control, but loose enough to clear for other traffic.
We normally flew to a nearby base to get our instrument approaches since we would have a ‘home field’ advantage from our familiarity with the approaches at MYR. We would use either nearby Charleston (CHS) or Shaw (SSC) AFBs to get our ‘strange field’ approaches and return to MYR for our landing evaluations; I elected to fly to Charleston AFB, which shares their runway with the Charleston airport.
As we were letting down under approach control, we were nearing a cloud deck below us. In my peripheral vision I could see the evaluator was closing in to a ‘fingertip’ position, where he had just three feet of wingtip clearance, but still stacked slightly lower than me. The chase position was not close enough to allow for visual contact when the clouds get thick!
As he settled into position, Charleston approach called out some traffic for us, “Hawg flight, you have opposite direction, VFR traffic in your 12 o’clock position for three miles, unknown altitude, and climbing out of the Charleston airport.” I acknowledged his call and advised him we were about to go IMC. The controller ‘Rogered’ my call – and then it happened!
I was truly trying to keep my head in the cockpit, but the hair on the back of my neck stood on end when, in my peripheral vision over the glare shield, I caught a glint from something coming out of the clouds directly ahead of me. I hollered over the radio, “Hawg flight pull up, PULL UP NOW!” At the same time, I yanked on my stick and looked over to see the evaluator following my lead.
All I saw was a red aircraft pass under my nose. I asked the evaluator if he had seen what I saw. He replied he had seen a red twin flash below me and added that one or both of us would have impaled it on the 30MM cannon in the nose of our airplanes had I not said and done something. I reported the incident to the controller and, after the flight, we filed a near mid-air collision report and debriefed our boss. I never heard anything else about the incident, but this close encounter was always on my mind when I later became an A-10 evaluator.
Scary! I also had a close near miss on a simulated instrument approach at a controlled airport. I was wearing foggles and my instrument instructor was in the right seat as safety pilot. I’d been cleared for the approach by ATC, picked up the ILS, and then been cleared for the “option” by the tower when my instructor suddenly yelled “turn hard right and climb NOW!”. I banked and yanked and flipped the foggles up just in time to see another aircraft flash past at my 11 oclock, and slightly below (now) and CLOSE. He was in a bank turning left from base to final! Yikes!
Hi Tom – that was quite an experience you had and I had one similar to the one in this article. What I found that is often necessary is to start a conversation with the pilot if I don’t get immediate visual contact. This can start simply with a clarification of their position. If no visual contact still, ask the other pilot for more information – confirm altitude, distance, position to a landmark, etc. That may surface the fact that the other pilot’s original report was inaccurate and that you were looking in the wrong direction. You can even ask for his indicated airspeed. Too many times, after an incident or accident, the conversation is ‘he was going way too fast’, ‘he wasn’t at TPA’, etc, etc.
N-numbers do matter and using them is an FCC requirement. I saw the comment in your referenced article by Ed. S. who said an N-number is pretty useless for identifying pilots. Totally wrong in my opinion. All airplanes are going to have some kind of record that can be traced. The easiest would be a rental aircraft. Even with multiple rentals in one day, there will be date, time, and renter records which would make the identification of the pilot pretty simple.
Several years ago I was number one for takeoff at a fairly busy class D airport. The tower advised “Grumman 779, cleared for takeoff.” I replied, and then looked up final before rolling onto the runway. My next call was “I’ll just wait on that aircraft on short final”. The other aircraft was about 100 yards out. The other aircraft replied “I appreciate that!”. The tower said “I appreciate it, too.”
Trust but verify.
Great Job Paul! Excellent story, and very well written. It’s great that you had your friend with you and he was watching out for traffic. Also, the fact that you both didn’t panic in this situation, probably saved your life. I also had a similar incident on my second solo flight, “Two Exciting Landings in 21 Years of Flying” written in the Air Facts Journal 2 years ago, in February of 2021. If you have time please feel free to read my story as well. Keep up the safe flying, wishing you all the best!
Many years ago before TCAS, I was climbing off of 1L from ICT in my trusty Lear 35. Passing around 8-9000, I looked down momentarily, then looked up to see a 58 Baron crossing right in front of me. I saw the people inside and heard the engines! ATC never said a word and immediately handed me off to the center when I asked them what happened!
That’s a good reminder that you are only guaranteed separation from IFR traffic. Also, on the day they bury you and your passengers, the FAA controller MAY get a demerit…
I have had 2 incidents in the pattern in my life time. First I was landing at my home airport and announced I was turning final and someone else announced they were on final. I stopped my decent and looked around more and saw an airplane off to my left that looked lik he was cutting the grass with his prop he was so low. So I announced I was going around.
The second was much closer. I was in the right seat of a friends airplane who was flying. We crossed midfield at Winchester, Va going to an EAA fly in. My friend , the PIC, was in the left seat and was turning left for a downwind. I was scanning off the right side and noticed a larger airplane get too close. I hollowed for the PIC who then leveled out and then saw the other plane. He dropped down and a T6 warbird crossed over the top of us prop to prop about 15 to 20 above us. The T6 looked like a mountain going over the top of us. It could have been a very bad day for all involved. Nuff said!!!!!
Years ago I was coming into an airport that wasn’t towered, but had an instrument approach. A bright beautiful VFR day. I was monitoring the CTAF channel, because the Stearman event was in full force. As I was entering the pattern, a Kingair decided he would too. The opposite end of the runway! I quickly got on the radio and told him the active was the opposite end. The one I am turning base to. He quickly replied, and went around. I think he must have been talking to Chicago center. Because he certainly wasn’t listening to the CTAF, nor the AWOS or ATIS.
This must have been before Reno had Approach and radar?
I was a passenger in an American Airlines 727 going from San Antonio to Chicago sometime in the late 70s. The aircraft was making all the procedure turns to get into O’hare.
Suddenly it made a very sharp (approximately 60 – 80°) bank and right descending turn. I was seated on the left side of the plane near the center of the wing, as I looked out to see the wingtip, a red Beechcraft Super 18 passed over us.
In 50 years of flying, that’s the closest I have ever been to a crash.
Many years ago I was cleared to land at Bangor, Maine for runway 33. I had just departed Brewer, Maine and was on short final for Bangor. I always checked around me as much as possible and….there it was–a Delta 727 descending just above me. I did an immediate turnout and then was cleared (again) for landing. I never did get an explanation from the tower.
I was flying a Cessna Caravan in west Nepal. A cold wave had moved in from the west. Visibility was below minima and flight operations had stopped few days. One day, surface visibility and ceiling increased to VFR arrivals/departures. Every pilot ran to his airplane and things got busy. We were IMC at 2000 feet and VFR on top at 8000 feet. Below us, we could see a thick yogurt like layer extending to infinity.
On my return trip, I called called tower to report my position over ‘Virgin Pass.’ It would take me another 20 minutes to land. This was followed by a Twin Otter pilot reporting ‘Dolpa Pass.’ For him, around 30 minutes to land. Next I called control zone. Twin Otter called saying he would be control zone in another five minutes. We had descended below 8000 feet and were IMC. I was flying on the right as I was doing an assessment for the pilot on the left. We intercepted the final approach and I called ten miles, finals on VOR/DME. ATC said report runway visual.
We were in clouds. PF was glued to his instruments. I was looking in and looking out. I suddenly realized the ambient intensity brightness reduced. I stretched out my neck to see, whatever could be seen. I was scared. Above us, I saw the right main landing gear tire of the Twin Otter. I told my PF, “I have control” and pitched down slightly, then turned right, away from the final approach track. When safe and comfortable, I told ATC what had happened.
I was informed later that the DME was not working on the Twin Otter and were doing position call outs and descents using en-route time and clock.
We made another approach and landed. Twin Otter crew were busy with paper works and visit to Flight Safety Standards Department for few days.
Smooth Flying and happy landings.