Never Again Online: Midair at Coeur d'Alene

May 1, 2002

I was well into the third year after obtaining my private pilot certificate, with approximately 500 hours to my credit, when I had an experience that was humbling and terrifying. I doubt I will ever forget that instant when the probability of a midair collision depended upon a split second and a few scant feet.

I fly out of the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, airport, which is a nontowered airport with two runways. Runway 5/23 can accommodate large bizjets. Therefore, Coeur d'Alene acts as a reliever airport when nearby Spokane International and Felts Field are both covered in fog, not an unusual situation for any time of year — and the situation on my day of infamy.

I was out for some practice time in my Cessna 182 in the kind of weather that makes you glad you are alive and a pilot — a day when the air is clean and crisp, the sun warm in the cockpit, and the glorious vistas of this country seem bigger than normal (except poor old Spokane under its 1,000-foot canopy of gray). We were fairly crowded because of the traffic overload, and our unicom frequency of 122.8 was filled with the usual position reports common to a nontowered field.

I decided to leave the immediate area for some more leisurely flying and headed north over the open fields, lakes, and wooded hills that make flying in the Pacific Northwest such a delight. A few miles north of Coeur d'Alene is a strip adjacent to a theme park, which occasionally presents airshows for public consumption. I decided to drop in on this strip (where I had practiced touch and goes during my training) to see the recent changes made to the park area. As I entered the park's traffic pattern, I noticed a new unicom frequency emblazoned on a hangar roof. Unbeknownst to me, they had been reassigned from their previous frequency (122.8) because of congestion on that frequency in our area. I dutifully tuned my radio to comply with the park's new frequency and made my landing.

Once my socializing was completed I departed the strip and headed back to Coeur d'Alene to put my baby to bed in the hangar and call it a beautiful day. As I approached the home base I was surprised at the lack of traffic on unicom. I assumed that Spokane had finally cleared itself of fog and sleepy old Coeur d'Alene was back to its normal, slow status quo. This being the case, and since I was inbound due north with little or no wind, I decided to enter a straight-in approach to Runway 19.

Sure that I was safe, yet still wary, I announced to the world that I was five miles north and inbound straight in on 19. I also announced a three-mile final to 19. I had just completed announcing that I was on short final to 19 when I was distracted by something in my left window. I will never forget jerking my head left and seeing the window filled with light green and white paint!

I instinctively yanked the column right and climbed. When I was able, I looked back to 19 to see what had appeared so suddenly and saw a large twin on final for my runway! I couldn't believe what an idiot that guy was. No radio contact at a nontowered airfield — he must be used to a controller's guidance and forgot the basics of pattern work. The jerk probably didn't even listen to me as I so properly made all those announcements for final. As soon as I could get my heart back to normal and my stomach out of my adenoids I would land and teach that arrogant twin driver a thing or two about rural airports. Then I looked down and saw the frequency set on my radio — the park airport's frequency.

I did not hear him — or anyone else for that matter — checking in on the Coeur d'Alene frequency, and they did not hear me, because I had made all of my announcements on the wrong frequency! But worst of all, I had violated that basic rule of pattern entry at nontowered airports — do not enter straight in.

The twin pilot had difficulty seeing me on my approach as he was flying straight into the setting sun. He was nearly blind on his base leg as I entered short final. Thank goodness that he made his turn to final 50 feet below me.

From now on, I'll double-check my radios when the frequency seems eerily silent — and I'll use the traffic pattern the way it was meant to be used.

Ford Dunton, AOPA 935303, is a private pilot with a single-engine land rating.

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