For three years in the 1990s, I co-chaired a committee that put on an annual airshow at Compton/Woodley Airport (KCPM) in California.
Actually, it was an “air faire” because 99% of the planes that flew in to participate were put on static display. A lone army helicopter always performed an aerial demonstration.
One year a private pilot offered to give kids free rides in his plane. Another year a local helicopter flight school offered free rides to kids.
Otherwise, the only reason a plane was in the air was because it was arriving for the festivities or getting straight outta Compton en route to a home field.
For the safety of all, KCPM was closed during the show hours. I worked with the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to make sure NOTAMs to that effect were written, reviewed, and published well ahead of the event. We made sure we were listed in the California guide to airshows. We even advertised on Southern California radio.
Despite our best efforts to advertise, NOTAM, and advise, I vividly remember a no-radio Piper J-3 Cub landing in the middle of our festivities after the airport was officially closed.
Miscommunication at airshows appears to be common, according to reports filed by pilots to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.
A Luscombe 8A pilot thought he was flying to Arnold Field Airport (M31) in Halls, Tennessee, for a fly-in. Ten miles out he called out on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF), but nobody answered. He continued toward the airport, and continued to hail on the CTAF.
“When about one mile out I could see a lot of planes flying close to the ground,” he wrote. “I felt sure I was looking at an airshow of sorts, so I took a heading for the next field.”
The pilot diverted to Dyersburg Regional Airport (KDYR) and landed.
He concluded his report with the concern that somebody should be monitoring the CTAF whenever an airshow or a fly-in or any other unusual event is happening at an airport.
A general aviation pilot intent on departing Washington Executive Airport/Hyde Field (W32) in Clinton, Maryland, decided to file a NASA report after a curious exchange on CTAF.
Prior to his departure, he received a full briefing from the local flight service station (FSS) that included briefs on any NOTAMs. The FSS briefer had not mentioned any related to an airshow at Joint Base Andrews (KADW), five nautical miles northeast of W32. He taxied out to the run-up area where he dialed up CTAF and asked for traffic advisories.
“They asked me if I would be remaining in the pattern because the Blue Angels were about to begin their routine,” he wrote.
The pilot had heard and seen other aircraft landing and departing from W32, so he didn’t understand the airspace restriction. He also didn’t understand why neither he nor the FSS briefer knew of any KADW airshow NOTAMs.
“In the past, there has occasionally been a NOTAM to contact KADW Tower before departing during airshows,” he wrote. “I wondered if there was a Class II NOTAM for airshow activity that the FSS briefer and I were unaware of.”
At the time of this report (circa mid-1990s), the cost to subscribe to Class II NOTAMs was about $80. The pilot attributed the high cost as the reason why he didn’t have his own subscription. He also noted that the W32 FBO did not provide hard copy NOTAMS to its pilots.
At some point after the flight, the pilot visited his FSDO in search of the elusive airshow NOTAM. The NOTAMs had already been thrown away. He never found out if an airshow NOTAM for KADW for the day in question had ever been issued.
Airshow miscommunication is not limited to the day of the show either. A GA pilot had to file a NASA report after almost getting mowed over by military jets practicing for an airshow in the San Francisco Bay area.
He had departed Half Moon Bay Airport (KHAF) for a sightseeing flight. He’d crossed over the Golden Gate Bridge, mid-channel above Richardson Bay, when two fighter jets roared past. They’d approached from behind and low in a circling maneuver. They arced past him, always staying slightly below his aircraft.
He wrote in his report, “The fighter jets were only 200′-300′ above terrain, 500′ above water. I was not expecting this type of maneuvering over residential areas at high speeds. I doubt they even saw me.”
According to his report, the jets were practicing for a weekend airshow slated to be held over San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Where those jets intercepted his airplane was approximately 15 miles from Fisherman’s Wharf.
He contacted the local FSS from his cockpit and queried the briefer about NOTAMs restricting flight near the Golden Gate Bridge or over Richardson, San Pablo, or San Francisco Bays. The briefer had no knowledge of any NOTAMs issued for that area.
“At point of interception with my aircraft, the fighter jets were below the controlled airspace floor of 700′ in that area. This should be better advertised in the aviation community and NOTAM’ed.”
Not just pilots
Even controllers submit NASA reports out of frustration with airshow miscommunication. One controller at the Pensacola TRACON complained about being given short shrift concerning an upcoming airshow at Pensacola Naval Air Station (KNPA) in Florida.
Typically, controllers at FAA Pensacola TRACON are given an extensive briefing on the airshow participants’ flight characteristics, as well as procedures to get aircraft in and out of KNPA. In the year in question, a two-page graphic depicting the traffic that would be activated for the show was placed in the facility’s “must read” binder. That was the extent of the briefing received by the controllers and their supervisors before that year’s show and practice shows.
The lack of briefing and the sparse information on the briefing sheet meant that ATC did not have good information on when KNPA airspace was officially closed or officially open.
“The airport was opened and closed randomly for three days,” he wrote.
He also wrote that on the busiest day — Saturday — the Air Boss, the military representative in charge of all military aircraft participating in the airshow, was incommunicado all day.
“This resulted in a delay in a helicopter trying to deliver a drowning victim to an area hospital,” he wrote.
The controller wrote he felt such casual treatment of non-standard operations like airshows had become common by Pensacola TRACON management.
In his report he concluded, “The controllers routinely receive late or no notification of pertinent info to the air traffic operation, such as the erection of antennae, operation of construction cranes, opening/closing of neighboring Eglin Radar Approach control facility. Their blasé treatment of critical KPNA information is dangerous.”
He also lamented that cutting corners appears to be a sign of the times.
Run up to an airshow
An annual airshow coupled with an auto show led a Cessna 152 flight instructor to file a NASA report.
The CFI was giving flight instruction at Burke Lakefront Airport (KBKL) in Cleveland, Ohio. Ground Control directed the instructor and her student to taxi their C-152 to Runway 24L and perform their run-up on that runway instead of Taxiway Bravo.
Runway 24L had been NOTAM’ed closed due to an airshow and an auto race happening on the same weekend. The controller wanted the run-up to be performed on the closed Runway 24L so a corporate jet could use Taxiway Bravo to access Runway 24R.
The student pilot was unable to interrupt the non-stop chatter between Ground Control and the aircraft that controller was directing, so unbeknownst to his instructor, he switched to the Tower frequency. The student pilot thought he heard Tower instruct him to “Continue taxi.”
Because Runway 24L was closed, the student assumed Tower meant to commence back-taxiing on the active Runway 24R. So he did.
“We moved about 100′ past the hold short line and down RWY 24R when Tower called and told us to get off RWY 24R due to possible conflict with corporate jet on final,” wrote the instructor.
She took the controls, spun the plane 180°, and quickly taxied off the runway onto Taxiway Bravo.
The C-152 managed to taxi back onto Runway 24L just before the corporate jet entered the taxiway it had just exited, avoiding any conflict.
The flight instructor felt that such miscommunications and close calls tended to happen easily at KBKL in summer months because of the accommodations made during preparations for the annual airshow and auto race. Despite the best efforts of information on the ATIS and the controllers, she and her student still managed to taxi onto an active runway without authorization.
These NASA reports demonstrate that the J-3 Cub incident at my Compton Air Faire wasn’t an isolated one. They also demonstrate there is no panacea. NOTAMs have to be issued and available to be helpful. But even when they are, there’s still one constant variable — the human factor.