BY MARK R. TWOMBLY (From AOPA Pilot, December 1995.)
A sunny Sunday afternoon, a few free hours, an airplane, and an eager passenger (my 6-year-old son) let's go airport hopping.
The first stop was a privately owned public-use grass strip sandwiched between a golf course and an upscale residential community. The listing in AOPA's Aviation USA cautions transients about aerobatic and training activity, but the pattern was quiet this day. The short-field approach worked out nicely, and we shut down next to a clipped-wing Cub.
The airport bore the signs of tender loving care bestowed by its aviation-enthusiast owners, who also live on the property. The two neat-as-a-pin hangars were stocked with an eclectic assortment of aircraft: a show-quality Cessna L-19; a couple of Super Cubs, plus another skeletal Cub stuck in the rafters awaiting restoration; a Globe Swift; and in the second hangar, a couple of pristine Piper Cherokees.
The lone person in attendance the wife of the husband-and-wife team who own the airport (he is a TWA pilot) cheerily greeted us and pointed the way to the soft-drink machine. We drank and explored, then waved our thanks and climbed back into our airplane to trundle off over the grass to the next adventure.
I scanned the chart and picked a small airport not far to the south as the next destination. Climbing out, I looked back at the grass field and guessed that maybe 80 percent of pilots me included dream of a life like the one we had just visited.
We approached our destination field from the north. Traffic was landing to the west on the east-west runway. I adjusted course to fly a crosswind over the departure end of the active runway at pattern altitude. All of this I announced over the unicom frequency.
Just after I began my turn to a downwind, a Cherokee pilot reported entering a left downwind for the same runway. I scanned the area ahead and spotted the airplane, perhaps a mile off. I reported it in sight and said I would fly a close-in pattern. A few seconds later he came back on the frequency, obviously agitated, and told the world within earshot that I had cut him off.
The serene mood that had settled over me during the visit to the grass field evaporated like dew on a hot cowling. "Sorry, sir, but I didn't cut you off," I shot back. "I flew a crosswind to a downwind and announced my intentions. I was ahead of you in the sequence."
No way was the Cherokee pilot going to let it go at that. "You better go back to school," he rebutted. "I was taught to enter a pattern on a 45-degree angle, not a crosswind."
In an instant the two of us had experienced skyrocketing blood pressure levels. Each of us was righteously indignant, convinced of our own superior knowledge and itching for a winner-take-all verbal fight.
I felt for the push-to-talk button to lecture the fellow about pattern entry procedures, but before I could push it, my headset crackled with the voice of a third pilot. "Listen up!" he commanded. He was inbound and had been listening to our rapidly escalating war of words, and he wasn't amused. His interest was in letting local traffic know where he was and what he was planning to do, which was to land.
The appearance of a third party caused the Cherokee driver and me to shut up. I sheepishly realized how childishly I had acted, even though I knew I was right. I'm sure the guy in the Cherokee had a red face as well, because I didn't hear a peep from him, either, except to announce his position in the pattern as he made his way to the runway.
Each time the third pilot updated his position, he opened with a stern "Listen up!" And we did.
The three of us landed in turn without further incendiary comment.
I turned around on the ramp, announced that I was back-taxiing on the active, then departed. My son decided to get mad at me because we hadn't been flying long enough nor far enough to suit his fancy, and he began to sulk as only a tired 6-year-old can. What had started as a wonderful, casual day of carefree flying had turned into a stomach-souring ordeal.
On the flight back to home base I reflected on my childish behavior of a few minutes earlier. It wasn't an isolated incident, however. I've heard plenty of similar frequency flareups at uncontrolled airports. For some reason, pilots who revere the back-slapping camaraderie that characterizes much of general aviation are quick to drop the kid gloves and slip on brass knuckles when a disagreement surfaces. Nasty exchanges over a unicom frequency because of an alleged procedural infraction "You cut me off, you jerk" are the most public examples of the dark side of pilots' personalities.
Nothing is accomplished by these confrontations, other than to anger and upset everyone who is participating or listening in. And sitting behind the controls of an airplane flying a congested pattern at an uncontrolled field is the wrong place to be angry or upset.
I should have ignored the Cherokee pilot's opening salvo and waited until we were both on the ground and out of our airplanes to discuss it with him. As it happened, nothing was resolved. Each of us was left feeling embarrassed and a bit ashamed. And I'm sure he still thinks he was right.