February 1, 2005
Beth Ann Schneider
It was a beautiful spring day so I headed for Heber City Municipal-Russ McDonald Field in Heber, Utah, for a little pattern work in my Piper Clipper, N5773H. As a fairly new taildragger owner I have come to understand the true meaning of "practice makes perfect."
I arrived at the hangar just in time to see a fellow pilot readying his T-28 for his weekly flight. It is always an honor to share the sky with such a powerful airplane. I smiled as I watched him depart the field and I started my preflight.
Need to keep an eye out for him, I thought to myself, recalling his typical flight routine — a five- or 10-minute valley tour followed by an overhead approach. An overhead maneuver is often flown by pilots of high-performance military aircraft, such as the T-28. Generally the pilot enters the upwind leg directly over the airport slightly higher than pattern altitude. At a specific point the pilot initiates a 360-degree descending turn, in a 30-to-45-degree bank, to short final. The goal is to keep the touchdown point in sight all the way to the runway.
About 15 minutes later I got a positive radio check and headed down the ramp for a runup. When I was ready to go I called my departure on Runway 21 and started my takeoff roll. Shortly after liftoff I heard a garbled message from another aircraft apparently inbound.
"Aircraft calling Heber, unreadable. Clipper Seven-Three-Hotel departing two-one, staying in the pattern, Heber," was my response, and I started looking for traffic. No joy.
"Heber traffic, Clipper Seven-Three-Hotel turning left downwind for two-one, Heber," I called. Just as I made the turn I heard another unrecognizable transmission from the inbound aircraft. A few seconds later I spotted the T-28 on the upwind leg just off the end of the runway — about to begin the overhead maneuver. I was approaching midfield on the downwind leg — my timing could not have been worse.
"Clipper Seven-Three-Hotel is downwind for two-one," I announced with emphasis on the downwind. I was sure he had me in sight and assumed that he would modify his approach and follow my landing, giving me plenty of room.
What happened next was a terrifying series of events lasting no more than five or six seconds. Just as I was passing midfield on the downwind leg the T-28 pilot made a hard left turn onto the crosswind leg — at midfield at what looked like my altitude I was at his 12 o'clock position, 200 feet away, and he was closing in fast.
It's hard to believe I had time to think at all, but a few thoughts ran through my mind. He's going to buzz me...that SOB...no, he wouldn't do that.... Wait! He doesn't see me! I instinctively pushed the nose over and dove. Another second passed and I cringed at the precise moment I supposed he would clip my tail, certain that he would. When he didn't I shallowed my dive and called, "Where are you?" His response was inaudible. "You scared me," I said in a dazed monotone. Two clicks from his mic signaled that he had heard my transmission. Just then I caught a glimpse of him at 2 o'clock. I was badly shaken and still not sure whether he had intentionally buzzed me, or if I was just in the right place at a very wrong time. Settling my nerves, I repaired what was left of my pattern and completed my touch and go. The T-28 landed behind me with plenty of room to spare.
I completed two more rounds in the pattern, made a 20-minute tour of the valley, and landed full stop. By the time I pulled up to the front of my hangar I had convinced myself that he had not intentionally buzzed me. He is too good of a pilot for a stunt like that. I secured the Clipper and headed for his hangar. I think he was expecting me.
"I called downwind three times," I blurted out as soon as I saw him.
"I never heard you," came a humble reply.
"You didn't see me, did you?"
"No. I never heard you and I never saw you."
We had a friendly conversation about pattern altitudes and procedures, radio calls, and radio quality, both admitting we had something to learn from the incident.
Never again can have a couple of meanings. On the one hand it can mean, wow, that was a really dumb thing. I'll never do that again. Or, as in the case of this story, it can mean, never again will I take certain simple things for granted. For instance, never again will I assume that my radio calls are being heard, and never again will I assume another aircraft in the pattern sees me and will do what I expect it to do.
I have heard of traffic pattern collisions before, but not until my up-close and personal encounter with the T-28 did I really understand how they could happen.
Beth Ann Schneider, AOPA 1007738, is a private pilot. She owns a Piper Clipper.
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