Never Again Online: Dangerous space

June 1, 2004

I could have seen the whites of the copilot's eyes — if he hadn't been wearing sunglasses.

Standing on the left rudder and heaving the Cessna 172RG Cutlass nearly to knife edge, I aimed for the tail of the Shorts Sherpa. In that instant of time-compressed consciousness I prayed it wouldn't be there when I reached that point in space.

The gray military airplane flashed past, left to right, and when I rolled level I looked right and saw it level out and continue its climb westward. We probably passed within 100 feet of each other.

"Uh, Redmond Tower," I squeaked. "We just had a near midair."

"Say again," he said.

I took a deep breath and tried it again.

"Ah, Niner-Zero-Victor, roger," the controller said after a moment of silence. "Call me on this number when you get on the ground." Minutes later I bounced in for a landing, my hands still shaking.

The day had started out beautifully — a glistening, blue Central Oregon morning in June. But I was on edge. I was taking my initial CFI checkride in Madras that morning.

I flew the 35 nautical miles north to Madras trying to do everything by the book. Consciously, I craned my neck as obviously as I could as I cleared my turns, even though the examiner wasn't with me yet. My instructors had drilled me ceaselessly on scanning for traffic.

The checkride went well. After a three- or four-hour ordeal, the designated examiner was satisfied I knew my stuff. He signed my papers, shook my hand, and waved as I strapped into the Cessna 172RG.

I climbed to 4,500 feet and leveled off. Normally after a checkride I treat myself to a half-hour or so of fun flying — following the Deschutes River or zigzagging along the edge of the Cascade Mountains — sightseeing over terrain I never tire of looking at.

This day, however, I had chores to do at home so I pointed the bird straight toward Bend. This course would take me through Redmond's Class D airspace. I got on the radio and told Redmond Tower I was 12 miles north of the Deschutes VOR direct for Bend. The controller told me to report abeam the airport and I acknowledged.

A minute later the controller warned me of skydiving operations over Lone Pine, an area eight or 10 miles east of me. Concerned he didn't have a good idea of my position, I radioed back that I was over Crooked River Ranch, a rural subdivision on the breaks of the Deschutes River.

As I neared the Class D airspace I heard the Tower talking to two airplanes. One was the Sherpa being cleared to depart. The other was a Beechcraft Baron west of the VOR inbound for Redmond's Roberts Field. Since my path would take me halfway between the airport and the VOR, six miles to the west, I picked up my scan.

A light haze had settled over the area, and try as I might, I could see neither aircraft. Yet I continued on course. Straining my eyes toward the runways, I still couldn't see the flat, gray Sherpa. I was about to make my call abeam the airport when I remembered the Baron. Quickly looking west I searched for it without success.

As I looked left again the Sherpa loomed big as a barge at my 11 o'clock.

It was climbing through my altitude at a right angle to my course. I'm sure the two pilots saw me at the same time I saw them. The big twin turboprop flinched hard left as I dodged for the space behind it. Had either of us been a second or two slower we'd be dead. I never saw the Baron.

After talking to the Redmond controller on the telephone I went home and filed a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System report on the situation. A few days later, a man from the FAA's flight standards district office in Hillsboro, Oregon, called. The military pilots had filed a report as well.

Fortunately nothing official came of the incident. But the lessons I learned that day will be with me for the rest of my flying life.

First, the airspace between a commercial-use airport and a busy VOR is a dangerous place, especially when flying at or just above pattern altitude as I was. I could have veered a couple of miles to the east and passed directly over the airport, a safer option. Or I could have passed a few miles to the west and stayed clear of the Class D airspace and below the typical flight path of departing high-performance aircraft.

Second, I continued into an area where I knew there was traffic, even though I could see neither airplane. Now, if I can't see an aircraft I know is near me, I'll ask for a position report, turn away, or both.

And third, I never assume controllers will keep me safe in a nonradar environment.

Who was at fault? All involved, I believe. I blundered into a dangerous situation. The controller failed to warn the other aircraft of my position. The military pilots failed to see me and follow proper right-of-way procedures.

See and avoid has become my mantra. I drill it into students and flight review clients the minute the prop starts turning. And my head is on a swivel until the airplane is chained down.


Steve Lundgren is a freelance writer and part-time flight instructor in Central Oregon. He is a commercial pilot and has been flying for 14 years.


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Posted Thursday, June 03, 2004 11:19:42 AM