Monday, November 24, 2008

Needs Work

Merced Castle Airport used to be a base for B52 bombers and the ramp area was (is) huge. I haven't been there in a while, but the bomber parking area used to be lined with large blast fences. The 11,000 feet of runway is longer than most, with overrun areas on each end. I flew there several years ago with a student pilot for a cross-country instructional flight. My student did a nice landing, but missed the first turn off. The next turn off was several thousand feet down the runway and the taxi back to the air museum was excruciatingly long.

When it was time to leave, I jokingly observed "Heck, the ramp is deserted. We could just point to the west and takeoff right here!" We got a good laugh out of that one. Taking off or landing on a taxiway or ramp is something helicopters do regularly, but not fixed-wing aircraft. In an emergency, you can of course land anywhere, but this knowledge didn't prepare me for what I saw a week ago at a nearby, non-towered airport.

I'd arrived with a pilot doing a high-performance checkout with the intention of practicing landings. There was one other airplane in the pattern, so we joined them and the first two times through the pattern provided just the training opportunities that we needed. Then things got busy. Two other aircraft joined the traffic pattern. The common traffic advisory frequency was busy, but everything was going smoothly and I had a good mental picture of who was where. That's when ... it happened.

We'd just started our crosswind turn when we heard a new aircraft announce that they were on short final for the runway exactly opposite what the rest of us were using. Now in theory, all runways are active at a non-towered airport, but going against the flow can be dangerous and needs to be carefully considered and coordinated with other aircraft operating at the airport. I turned and saw the aircraft on short final and was shocked to see an aircraft departing the opposite direction. Each aircraft made a comment on frequency and Mr. Wrong Way said something about how they were "just practicing emergencies." This led me to the conclusion that an instructor was on board, but where did they come from? They seemed to just appear in the pattern out of nowhere.

Mr. Wrong Way made another comment that they saw the opposite direction airplane and that everything was fine. We'd turned downwind and were paralleling the errant aircraft as it offset away from the runway. Mr. Wrong Way passed within 100 feet of the departing aircraft as it climbed out. Mr. Wrong Way continued, overflew the ramp, touched down momentarily on the ramp, and then took off. As he became airborne, he overflew the fuel island and numerous parked aircraft. He continued his opposite direction upwind, overflying houses in violation of the local noise abatement procedures. After his first two radio calls, I never heard another. He departed the pattern and disappeared.

Two days ago, while in the run-up area, I witnessed a Lancair that was told to hold short of the runway by the tower. The pilot actually crossed the hold short line and held between the hold short line and the edge of the active runway. An aircraft passed right by the Lanceair and landed, so I turned to my student and commented "You just witnessed a runway incursion." As the landing aircraft continued its rollout, the Lancair must have really been chomping at the bit because he began to creep onto the runway, a full 10 seconds before the tower told him to position and hold. The tower controller never said anything and, due to the distance between the tower cab and the hold short line, he may have not realized that the Lancair was on the wrong side of the hold short.

On another flight, in the traffic pattern at a nearby towered airport, we were told to extend downwind and follow an experimental aircraft that was inbound on a base entry. My trusty PCAS was mounted on the dash and it alerted us to an aircraft well below. That's when we saw the experimental, inbound on a base entry at about 200 feet AGL, overflying a refinery and, from my perspective, it just barely cleared the tops of the cracking towers.

I recently witnessed several other stupid pilot tricks, but I won't belabor the point. As an instructor, I've never claimed that I've seen it all, but I used to see these sorts of antics once or twice a month. My perception is that this behavior seems to be on the rise and it makes me wonder.

The GA community is, by and large, self-regulated. There aren't many FAA "cops" out there, giving tickets and keeping us honest, Most of the time, self-regulation works just fine. Pilots tend to avoid dangerous behavior because they don't want to get hurt, or worse. When their aircraft gets into a dicey position, a healthy pilot feels uneasy, they may even feel fear. These feelings are good because they tend to keep us from doing dumb ass things. That keeps us from bending planes and it keeps us alive.

More than a few pilots out there seem to lack this healthy perspective. I've given instruction to a few pilots who never seemed to feel fear and their inappropriate reactions to risk scared me. Instructors and experienced pilots need to continue to set a good example, but that might not be enough. Keep your eyes peeled because Mr. Wrong Way and his bretheren are still out there and they seem intent on being selected out of the gene pool. Don't let them take you with them.


Blake said...

Was there a reason why you didn't say anything to the ground controller when you witnessed the other aircraft go past the hold short line?

Colin Summers said...

I believe one pilot to another on frequency is sometimes helpful. "You are over the hold short line." Nothing else. I believe that there are times that pushes a pilot toward better behavior.

I had a trainee tower controller at Long Beach today. She was more dangerous than anything you reported since she was affecting half a dozen planes at a time, calling out traffic that wasn't a factor and neglecting traffic that came within a couple hundred feet of one another.

John said...

At the time, I thought about making an observation on the tower frequency, but my intuition told me to not say anything. I have witnessed situations where making a comment at a critical moment can actually create more confusion and may make the situation worse. But you bring up a good point. In the future, I think I will be more inclined to say something.