July 1, 2002
By Bruce Landsberg
Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.
Special events are a big deal, not only to the participants, but also to anyone in the vicinity who may be inconvenienced by crowds and procedures. For me, there is a great satisfaction in negotiating the airports and airspace impacted by an event. Between the aircraft, the ATC system, the event organizers, and other pilots, there is always a grand opportunity to excel or to experience the agony of defeat as one darn thing after another goes awry.
For any big event such as the Olympics, a Nascar race, the Masters golf tournament, or even just a local airshow, there is likely to be a notam that affects both VFR and IFR pilots. Surprises are great for birthday parties but not good for pilots where routing, delays, slot arrival and departure times, and fuel burn are concerned. Time is always the crucial element. By design, these special activities saturate the airspace and airport with too many—or just enough—aircraft, depending on your viewpoint. To avoid chaos there has to be a plan, and if a fellow pilot didn't get the word, life can become complicated or terminated if two aircraft get together.
At the last Sun 'n Fun EAA Fly-In it was evident that many pilots had not done their homework. Arrival procedures were available via the Internet or by mail. The FAA prepared a pocket-size booklet that clearly laid out what was needed for arrival or departure. For a government document, this one was exceptionally clear. There were diagrams of flight paths, navigational fixes, altitudes, frequencies, and procedures regarding exterior lighting, speeds, and radio usage. It was all there on the AOPA and EAA Web sites.
A special ATIS arrival frequency outlined specifically what was happening with instructions not to contact but to monitor the Lake Parker Approach controller. The drill was to fly to a well-defined landmark, in this case a power plant located on the shore of a fair-size lake. Fly east of the lake and then fly westbound over the plant at 1,200 feet and 100 knots with lights on, gear down if so equipped, ears on, and mouth shut. If sans radio, you needed to know the procedures cold—period.
In a case like this, the pilots do as much sequencing as the controllers. See another aircraft ahead and follow it. The controllers help to sort things out if the pilots don't. More than a few attempted to shortcut the entry over the plant. Normal radio procedures were not used—too much talk and not enough action. The uneducated, and there were a few, used normal ATC call-ups. ATC patiently repeated the instructions that had been on the ATIS and in the notam.
Occasionally, there was a need to speak up when something didn't look right. While I was inbound, two pilots decided they were getting too close and broke out of the pattern to go back to the power plant and start over. It was nicely done and prevented a difficult situation from becoming serious. That's a good reason to break radio silence.
In the heavy arrival days just before the show, a fatal midair collision occurred on final approach to Runway 27 Right. One aircraft overtook another. According to the preliminary accident report, the local controller requested the lead aircraft to sidestep to Runway 27 Left, but the pilot did not respond. He repeated the instructions but the pilot, again, failed to respond. The controller then instructed the trail aircraft to climb and it, too, did not respond. It is too soon to assign a probable cause other than to note that one must listen carefully, especially when on final approach.
Whenever there is a mishap or just heavy traffic, there will be delays and that means extensive holding. There are more opportunities for aircraft to get together and the chance that someone may forget that fuel isn't optional. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends at least an hour's reserve on landing. Every year a few pilots going to shows learn the hard way that the decision to land short for fuel is easier than the forced decision to land.
Expect the unexpected. To a much greater extent than normal we depend on the other pilots to follow the procedures, but there are no guarantees. Because of the close proximity to other aircraft, extreme high-density flying is much more like driving a car. The "big sky-little aircraft" approach to collision avoidance doesn't work here. Eyes must be outside and all distractions from inside must be minimized. A touch of paranoia doesn't hurt. While on left downwind leg, I noticed another aircraft turning onto final from a right base. Surely that aircraft is on the parallel runway, I thought, but just to be sure, let's delay the base turn slightly. The tower says nothing and now it looks like, yes it is, the low-wing Piper has just busted the pattern and is on a long final to my runway. Fortunately, the aircraft behind me was way behind so it all worked out, but the Piper pilot was depending on me to see and avoid him.
Basic airmanship is taken for granted at shows and it shouldn't be. At the big shows there is frequently an assigned spot on the runway to land. One lands long and the other lands short. It's apparent that many pilots have never flown along just above the runway at minimum speed to hit the spot simply by reducing power and flaring.
Sometimes, if the runway is wide, there will be side-by-side landings. Each aircraft has 75 feet of width on a big runway, which should be plenty—unless there's a crosswind and the upwind pilot is having a directional control issue. Then it becomes your issue as well and then it's good to forget formation and either go around or stagger the arrival to allow the other guy all the room he needs, including your half. No problem, Brother, you just play right on through.
In terms of learning how and how not to land, you can't get a better spot than alongside a show runway. Gaining access is sometimes tough but in 30 minutes you'll see it all: too fast, too slow, bounces, nosewheel first, porpoises, slips that needed to stop before touchdown, and grease jobs that restore your faith that humans really can master flight.
Airspeed, or rather angle of attack, deserves some mention. There are well-documented instances of pilots arriving at shows and attempting the impossible feat of hovering in fixed-wing aircraft. I've only attempted this in practice, usually at 2,000 feet agl or above, and have stalled out every time. I've never been able to exceed the critical angle of attack and would take this as a matter of personal improvement—except nobody I've spoken to has been successful either. If ATC or the aircraft ahead of you, by flying too slowly, invites you into this untenable but well-explored area, decline the invitation. You'll avoid headlines and reduce delays.
All said, it does take some practice and preparation, and that is the point—don't come out of hibernation on the first warm spring or summer day and decide that today would be a great day to fly to the show or even a fly-in breakfast. With so many aircraft in the air in such a confined space, the margins are thinner. Know the procedures, know your aircraft, and know yourself. Getting into and out of a show gives a great feeling of accomplishment and the camaraderie is wonderful, but this isn't a place for lone eagles—everybody has to be a team player.
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