I introduced my last column about reports to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System from pilots who had experienced problems with contemporary RNAV approaches by describing a BFR/IPC combo I took over 10 years ago.
With sincerest apologies to my editor, publisher, and readers, I forgot to put quotes around the word “declared” in the phrase “…declared an emergency….” The emergency was simulated. The only person who heard me declare was my flight instructor. I did have a feathered prop and a dead engine, but only because he’d cut off the fuel flow. We were on a precision approach, but it was in CAVU VFR conditions. And we went missed at the DA, not any lower.
Even well-meaning writers miscommunicate. I use a mental shorthand while drafting my column. It helps me make sure I get my message across. But sometimes the shorthand ends up on the page instead of the message. Mental shorthand that leads to miscommunication is not reserved only for the writer’s room. It also finds its way into the cockpit.
A Cessna 172 instructor concluded in his NASA report that his own verbal shorthand did not serve him well during an emergency landing attempt. The incident occurred while giving a biennial flight review (BFR).
The CFI and his client were doing pattern work. They suddenly smelled exhaust gas leaking into the cockpit. The instructor contacted Tower, informing him of their situation. He requested permission to leave the pattern and fly direct to their home airport. It was approved. He was told to maintain 2,500′.
“Upon reaching 2,500, both pilot and I began feeling symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning,” he wrote.
They slowed the aircraft down enough to safely open the windows. They then ventilated the cockpit with fresh air. Once the smell cleared, they closed the windows and accelerated.
“I did not officially declare an emergency with ATC as it was more vital to communicate my intentions with the traffic currently flying (at his home airport), which proved to be a huge help to us,” he stated in his report.
Instead he requested all other traffic in the area to clear out of the pattern so they could arrive without delay. According to his report, all aircraft in the vicinity complied.
In hindsight, the instructor realized that he should have declared an emergency with the tower where he and his client were doing pattern work. He concluded that landing as soon as he smelled exhaust would have been a wiser decision. He realized he had become too focused on getting home. He further noted strong exhaust leak fumes could have been evidence of something imminently more catastrophic.
A Diamond DA-40 Diamond Star flight instructor and a pilot he was giving a BFR filed a NASA report when their communication error caused a near mid-air collision (NMAC) with a Cessna 182.
They were approaching their airport towards the end of the flight portion of the BFR. On the downwind leg, the CFI pulled the power to simulate an engine failure. According to the CFI, his client (the PIC) had been making radio calls throughout the entire pattern.
“We had previously heard the AWOS when approaching the airport, but the CTAF was quiet,” he wrote.
Both instructor and PIC indicated they vigilantly scanned for traffic throughout downwind, base, and final portions of the traffic pattern. They both noted the PIC had made radio calls throughout the entire pattern on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF).
Neither saw nor heard any other traffic in the area, though. When the CFI simulated the engine failure, the PIC radioed their intentions and performed a short approach to the runway.
“Apparently, we landed on the runway ahead of the other plane,” wrote the PIC.
The CFI concurred. “After landing, we saw someone on the go-around,” he wrote.
A conversation with the pilot in the Cessna 182 that went missed revealed two things: He too had not seen their airplane nor heard their calls.
Everybody agreed two factors contributed to the NMAC. The first was a classic traffic pattern trap. The Cessna 182 is a high-wing aircraft. It was on approach at a lower altitude than the Diamond DA-40. The DA-40 is a low-wing plane. It had been on approach at a higher altitude than the Cessna. They deduced each had been flying in the other’s blind spot.
At a non-towered airport, the best way to see and avoid flying into another aircraft’s blind spot is to make position reports and listen for other traffic on the CTAF.
“Later I realized the intercom had the PA button pressed, which probably blocked us from hearing any radio transmissions,” wrote the CFI.
The PIC wrote, “Further research on the Diamond Star’s G1000 instrument system does seem to indicate that pressing of the PA system button will disconnect the current communication radio.”
Both the CFI and the PIC agreed to do a better job of scanning the area during flight. They also concluded that making communications checks during flights to verify good transmission and reception would become part of their normal procedures.
A veteran flight instructor once told me never to trust a quiet CTAF/Unicom.
“If it’s quiet, it’s too quiet,” she said to me.
Her advice was to always try to raise the local FBO on CTAF/Unicom for a “radio check” if the frequency seemed too quiet for too long. I share that advice with my students.
Accidental equipment mis-operation leading to a failure in communication is one thing. Purposely misleading other aircraft in the traffic pattern by making a false position report is another.
A Cessna 172 CFI alleged in his NASA report that a corporate jet pilot approaching Charleston Executive Airport (KJZI) did just that to gain landing priority over other aircraft.
The CFI was in the midst of giving his client a BFR, performing pattern work. They were midfield on the downwind when another aircraft transmitted, “we’re midfield downwind for a right 45°, Runway 09,” on the CTAF. “I don’t even know what that means!” wrote the CFI, but he knew that he too was midfield, downwind for Runway 09.
His next radio call was directly to the corporate jet pilot, requesting he give his actual DME distance from the field. The jet pilot just responded by repeating the nonsensical phraseology. Neither the CFI nor his client could find the jet, so, concerned about a mid-air collision, he broke off the pattern and turned north away from the airport.
“Since I was in a high wing airplane, I elected to descend from 1,000′ (traffic pattern altitude) to 700′,” he wrote.
That’s when he and his client saw the jet. It was actually north of the airfield on an arcing flight path toward final approach to Runway 09. In other words, the evasive maneuver the CFI took, based upon the jet pilot’s position report, put him in a head-on collision course with it.
“I have flown military fighters, worked for a major airline, and flown light airplanes for many years,” wrote the CFI. “This was in the top five most dangerous non-combat situations I have been in.”
Intentional misinformation by any pilot is never warranted. For a corporate jet pilot to deliberately misrepresent his position in an airspace crowded with a mix of light general aviation and faster corporate jets is unforgivable.
A Piper PA-28 Arrow pilot could be forgiven for forgetting to communicate with himself during his BFR flight segment. The subsequent incident necessitated a NASA report.
The plan was for him and his instructor to fly from their home airport to a close-by airfield to perform some touch-and-goes. From there, they planned to conduct air work in that airport’s practice area.
In his report, the pilot wrote that the flight time from his home field to when ATC handed him over to the other airport’s advisory frequency was less than two minutes.
“I was already midfield and at pattern altitude before I realized it,” he wrote in his report.
He hustled to slow down his plane, listen for traffic advisories, and configure for landing. He forgot to do his GUMPS check on the downwind leg.
He reported the destination airfield had a narrower runway than he was used to, so he became fixated on maintaining runway centerline on final approach. He also got distracted talking with his instructor, another missed GUMPS check opportunity.
“I then very nicely landed dead centerline on the runway just at the touch down point with my gear up.”
His analysis of the incident revealed three contributing factors. The first was failure to maintain a sterile cockpit. He identified the other two as internal communication failures. He failed to adhere to his regular mental flow, which included normally using the GPS to give him situational awareness. The second was when he saw that he was already in the destination airport’s pattern, yet he failed to accelerate his brain forward to his GUMPS check and arrival flows.
What’s the takeaway? How well we communicate impacts how well we fly.