So there you are, flying along in the traffic pattern of a non-towered airport. All is well. There are a couple other airplanes in the pattern with you, but everyone is making their radio calls, flowing together well, and maintaining good traffic separation with a strong emphasis on see-and-avoid.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a new airplane pops up with the intention of landing. Maybe they enter on the base leg, or just call a long final that requires everybody already operating in the pattern to adjust their downwind and base legs to accommodate this new arrival.
To compound the annoyance factor, the interloper decides to meander down the runway after touchdown, taking an inordinately long time to taxi clear of the runway, causing the next airplane in the lineup to do a go-around.
It happens. As much as it saddens me to say it, it happens a lot.
Still, this is generally not a condition created through malice or an out of control ego.
Rather, it often stems from an ignorance of how to operate with other traffic in a smooth, safe, logical manner.
For all the Advisory Circulars, FAASTeam meetings, and occasional angry outburst on the CTAF, there are always a significant number of pilots who just don’t seem to realize what a burden they’re putting on their fellow pilots, or what a traffic SNAFU they’re causing by just jumping into the pattern from any direction, at any time, regardless of what’s going on.
This is often caused by errant instruction provided by a well-intentioned CFI who simply doesn’t understand the correct, safe method of entering a traffic pattern at a non-towered airport.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, that is exactly what I found myself a bystander to last week.
While in the pattern at my home airport, the other traffic and I were flowing nicely as we all got a bit of practice at landings. I was enjoying the opportunity to circulate some oil on a sunny day while working on no-flap landings. Ahead of me in the pattern was a C-310 flown by a young woman I have flown with in the past. She’s top-notch. And so, I was enjoying the experience of following her through the pattern as much as I was entertaining myself in my never-ending quest for the perfect squeaker of a landing.
Somewhere in there, a new aircraft entered the pattern. They turned right while still way out in the distance to join a left base to the runway in use. So far off in fact that it would be more reasonable to say they called base while still en route.
The instructional flight was being flown by the student, with the instructor making the radio calls. They found their way into the pattern incorrectly, but without causing too much of a disturbance. However, after touching down and rolling out to mid-field on the 4,000′ runway, the CFI announced they would be doing a stop-and-go short-field takeoff.
This was a bit inconvenient for the other traffic because we hadn’t planned on dealing with a surprise guest who would land and stop on the runway while a student pilot reconfigured the aircraft and prepared for a short-field takeoff.
It was also surprising because this wouldn’t be a simulated short-field takeoff. By using up half or more of the runway on landing, it was a real short-field takeoff, complete with real life obstacles in the form of trees and a large body of water immediately behind them.
After takeoff, the CFI keyed the radio and announced they were leaving the area. At less than 500 AGL they made a right turn out of a left-hand pattern and climbed away.
Now, the cranky old dude in me noticed several errors in judgment were made during this single landing and takeoff. I can live with that. I once made an error in judgement myself. It was a bracing experience.
However, what got my attention in this situation is that three CFIs were in the pattern. Two of us were doing it right. One of us was doing it wrong. And that one was actively instructing a primary student who would have every reason to believe they’d just done the right thing, the right way.
That’s not good.
Rather than start a bitch-fest on the radio, which is always a bad idea, I chose a different path. I sent an email to the program manager of the flight school, opening with the line, “Let me say right up front, this email does not constitute a complaint.”
Setting an appropriate tone is important. I wasn’t mad at the CFI or the student pilot, but it was obvious that both had a basic misunderstanding of how to conduct themselves in a non-towered airport environment.
Frankly, that’s not unusual. The flight school is based at a towered airport. The odds are good the CFI trained at a towered airport. The widely held and totally inaccurate assumption is that non-towered airports are uncontrolled airports runs rampant at many such schools.
So my goal was simple: To let the program manager know that at least one of his instructors was passing on bad information to students, and showing a bit of derring-do on takeoff requirements that just might bite him or her on the butt one day if they keep cutting things that close.
As expected, he was appreciative. After all, he’s a pro. He let me know he’d be making sure his instructors got a briefing regarding the proper way to handle each of the areas of deficiency I’d mentioned. A reaction that would make his CFIs better and more confident, his students better informed, and traffic issues in the local area to be less stressful for everyone.
A little correction can go a long way. And while I will never know the name of that CFI or student, and they will likely never know how their enhanced briefings came to be, I’d like to think the improved knowledge and skills they develop as a result will make their lives in the air better, safer, and more enjoyable.
One can always hope.