Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ramp Rage

One part of becoming a pilot is learning to deal with your emotional reactions to flight. Here's an example: When flying the traffic pattern and turning from the base leg to final, a lot of the earth appears in the windshield. For most new pilots, that primitive, survival-oriented part of the brain often kicks in and tells them to pull up to avoid certain death, even though pulling up is usually counterproductive. The view out the window in this situation is actually a bit of a visual illusion: The aircraft is pitched down slightly, in a descent. Combine that with the bank angle required for the turn and to the inexperienced observer, it appears as if the aircraft is pitched down more that it actually is.

Another example is when a student pilot is first learning to land. It's not uncommon to feel panic, fear, anxiety, and/or a loss of control. With practice, you come to realize that things are usually not as out-of-control as they appear. As you learn how to handle the aircraft, the adrenaline lessens and the emotions fade, allowing you to focus on the task at hand. This adaptation process can lead some pilots to think that feeling fear is bad and should be suppressed, denied, or hidden. Yet fear is not always a bad thing when it is kept in context. Acknowledging fear might just keep you alive and out of harm's way.

Certificated (or licensed) pilots who have flown for any significant amount of time have had the unpleasant experience of getting closer to another aircraft than they would have liked. I've had this occur on the ground and in the air more times than I would have liked, but the result is always the same: A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, followed by a sense of relief and an almost immediate moderation of the emotions that surface as the adrenaline is subsiding. If you don't put the emotional component in context after a close encounter, you'll never get back into an airplane.

This past week I witnessed a Cherokee pilot who decided to taxi between our aircraft (parked at a fuel island) and a twin-engine aircraft that had started its engines, but had not begun to taxi. When I saw this gentleman start moving and I realized that he was going to try to "thread the needle" between our Skyhawk and the Twin Comanche, I knew it was going to be very tight. So I walked over to give him signals should he get too close.

Pilots who are in a hurry while taxiing often seem a little angry or irritated and this Cherokee pilot was no exception. He seemed pissed-off and hellbent on his course of action as taxied past our aircraft with his wing beneath our wing and with just inches to spare between his other wingtip and the Twin Comanche's wingtip fuel tank. It was a stupid, dangerous, and selfish display. Ironically, the twin began to taxi out about 10 seconds after superpilot's antics were complete.

I wrote in my now defunct freight blog about an experience I had with an experimental taildragger nearly colliding with a Cirrus in which I was instructing as we sat in the run-up area. The taildragger pilot was taxiing too fast and he didn't see us until the last moment. He caught my attention immediately when I saw the speed at which he was traveling, but by then we were a sitting duck - there was no time to taxi out of his way or evacuate the aircraft. The taildragger pilot saw us just in time, stomped on the brakes, planted his prop on the pavement, and slid to a stop just inches from the leading edge of our wing and our propeller.

Having flown taildraggers a bit, I imagined that the pilot's intentions were to enter the run-up area and swing the tail of his aircraft around, which is a cool and pleasing experience. But visibility while taxiing in many taildraggers is poor, at best. Taxiing fast in a taildragger might not be the height of stupidity, but it comes damn close.

When we got out and talked to the taildragger pilot, he seemed more concerned with the damage to his aircraft, engine, and prop than the tremendous fireball he almost created. No apology. No inquiry about us being okay, just concern over his own loss. What was his thought process? Did he have a little voice in his head telling him to slow down and he just ignored it? Or did it never cross his mind that what he was doing was inherently risky?

Most pilots taxi too fast and I myself have been guilty of this. In aircraft without GPS you usually do not have an objective measure of your ground speed. The airspeed indicator won't start providing indications until you are travelling 35 or 40 knots and by then, you are already going too fast. If you have GPS, pay attention to your ground speed while taxiing. My rule of thumb is to avoid taxiing faster than 8 to 12 knots in a light aircraft. I taxi even slower when near other aircraft, fences, or obstructions.

Keeping your groundspeed down while taxiing takes discipline and attention, as does keeping situational awareness on the ground or in the air. If you are a "brave" pilot I recommend that you consider what risks your heroic antics might pose to others. To do this, we must stop and think about someone other than ourselves. Based on what I've seen, this sort of thinking is in short supply.


flyaway said...

regarding the potential for ramp rage, my instr instructor was telling me a story a few days ago of being on an instrument approach with a student into an uncontrolled airport. while on final a cessna suddenly appeared before him turning base to final. he had to take the controls and do a go-around (not knowing if the other plane was full-stop or touch and go). the offending plane did not make a single radio call. i expected that to end up being a ramp rage situation but he pointed out to me that radio calls at uncontrolled airports are not required and thus you have to look out for that sort of thing no matter where you are.

on the subject of taildraggers and taxiing, i was watching the red bull air races a few months ago and saw a short clip of one of them taxiing and almost running into a parked cessna (172?). the video clearly shows the racer suddenly stopping and tilting forward and a prop strike on the ground. i didn't realize how difficult it is to see over the cowling until i saw an old WW-II P-47 pilot training video i got as a present a while back. some of the instructions were on zig-zagging during taxi to give a view ahead. seeing that big plane zig-zagging down the taxiway was quite a sight.

Eric said...

About a month ago I had just finished fueling the Yankee, and had pulled forward from the pump prior to start. At KPAE, the self-serve pumps are right behind the flightline for one of the 3 flight schools.

As I stood there, one of that school's Cardinals sped past, wing above mine, and pivoted into his parking spot with a boost of the throttle. I was actually so pissed off at the reckless behavior that I walked over and pointed it out to the older (60s) flight instructor who was sitting right seat.

I still can't believe how dismissive and rude he was, claiming that there was plenty of clearance and totally disregarding the fact that prop blast is a major hazard on the ramp.

Jack said...

Too fast taxi ops ticks me off as well. I was in Leesburg, FL about a week ago. We'd just tied down the Arrow and I watched a guy in a Tiger land. He floated a bit and I thought, no biggie, happens to everyone from time to time. Then I watched him taxi from the parallel to the ramp, cutting the corners (as in not staying on the centerline). I thought he was going to clip a wing on a parked fuel truck. He drops off a passnger, fires up, then does the same stupid taxi trick on the way out. No run-up either, he just departs. Totally stupid.