Alert to the danger

Image: © 2015 Textron Aviation

Funny how a chance discussion with another pilot before and after a flight can bring home some important safety lessons. This lesson was about avoiding the hazards associated with flying in the vicinity of non-controlled aerodromes (‘alerted see-and-avoid’).

I fly out of Tyabb Airport on the beautiful Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne. Recently, when walking to my Cessna 172 to do the pre-flight checks, another pilot stopped me and asked if I could help with the lock on his aircraft door. During our quick discussion he mentioned that he had been ill, and that today was to be his first flight, taking a friend, in quite a while.

I wished him well and continued to my aircraft, casually thinking, ‘I hope he flies the plane better than he gets into it’, and ‘hope he’s OK after not flying for a while’. (I also thought about ‘must be cleared by a DAME if impairment was for 30 or more days’ and ‘must not fly as PIC with passengers unless at least three take-offs and landings in previous 90 days’).

After take-off I noted that we appeared to be the only two aircraft flying at that time. As he had taken off and departed the circuit before I finished my pre-start checks, my radio was not yet on, so I missed his radio calls. I thought that perhaps I should have asked him where he was going to fly that day (situational awareness).

On returning from solo practice in the training area over French Island, Westernport Bay, I made an inbound radio call including my position and altitude. A few seconds later there was an inbound radio call from another pilot giving the same position and altitude as me. I recognised his call sign: it was the pilot I had briefly spoken to before take-off. But there was no mention from the other pilot that he had my aircraft in sight (‘If you haven’t sighted the traffic, say so’).

I quickly did some extra scanning in all directions, but could not see him. I thought that we could be very close to each other, and maybe closing. I instinctively turned on all my remaining outside lights, and after an extra-good scan, turned away from the airport in a gentle left-hand 360 degree turn to get well out of the way (‘Turn on external lights in vicinity of non-towered aerodromes’ and ‘change heading to create relative movement to help detection and avoid collision’).

I still could not see him, but then I heard his radio call joining the circuit mid-downwind, so I knew he was now well in front of me and well out of the way. On overflying the airport before descending to circuit height on the dead side and joining crosswind, I heard his base and final radio calls and could easily see him.

Back on the ground we had another brief discussion. He said he first saw me with all my outside lights on turning to the left. He had been well behind me, a little higher and slowly descending (‘look before descending!’).

I thought later that perhaps after his inbound radio call I could have made a radio call asking him if he had me in sight, but recognising that we could be very close and closing, I judged that time was of the essence and so I opted to do what I did (‘aviate, navigate, communicate’). It worked and I reckon I did the right thing. I know my inbound call was accurate in terms of position and altitude, but I am not so sure about his.

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  1. There’s a lot more to this story than ‘aviate, navigate and communicate’. See and Avoid is most inefficient at avoiding mid-air collisions … NB inefficient if not impossible.

    If “the Big Sky theory” fails, especially for small aircraft not using any other electronic anti collision aids, the eyeball is severely handicapped when it comes to seeing ‘conflicting traffic’. Such conflicts are far better solved well before one needs to rely on the eyeball.

    The ‘brain’ on the other hand is much better – as long as system procedures and training give it the chance to put good habits, etc. & especially radio communication habits, into effect. Non routine actions will invariably result in confusion, a lack of situational awareness and high risk.


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