The wind favored Runway 27 at our home base of Madison County Airport in Central Ohio.
My husband James and I were planning to practice a few maneuvers and simulated IFR approaches in our slightly worn, but loved, Grumman Tiger—and we had no inkling we were about to have a close encounter with a four-engine, C-130 “Hercules” military transport.
I climbed into the left seat for some steep turns and stalls in preparation for my upcoming biennial flight review. Later I’d take over as safety pilot while James shot a few practice approaches.
Surface winds were less than 10 knots when I took Runway 27 for departure. My pre-BFR practice session went smoothly, and soon we were back on the ground. James and I traded seats, and I became his safety pilot. We flew to Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport (SGH), also known as the Springfield Air National Guard Base, for an instrument approach.
James and I are civilian employees at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and private pilots with more than a few SGH landings in our logbooks, and are pretty familiar with the setup. Springfield’s tower only operates on weekdays and during occasional off-hours as required by Guard missions. That Sunday, the tower was closed and the military operating area to the south was inactive.
James called Dayton’s air traffic control facility, requested the ILS Runway 24 approach, and was given vectors. Another small aircraft was already in the hold for the same approach and soon made a helpful radio call:
“Dayton, just so you know, there’s a Herc on the ground at Springfield who’s been trying to reach you for clearance delivery.”
“Okay, I can’t receive him from there, so he ought to figure out pretty soon that he needs to call Flight Service,” the controller said. “Actually, I can give you that phone number to pass along if he checks in again.”
The helpful pilot relayed the FSS phone number. But something puzzled me. Springfield was an F-16 base, and I was accustomed to hearing the single-seat fighters operating there. But just what kind of airplane was a Herc?
“You don’t figure there’s a C-130 at the Guard base, do you?” I asked James as I scanned for traffic.
He wasn’t sure, either.
We continued on our approach, and I soon recognized the long gray ribbon of Runway 24. Air traffic control advised us to change to Springfield’s common traffic advisory frequency.
“Springfield traffic, Herc One-Two-Three (I’ve forgotten the call sign) is taking the active,” we heard.
I squinted at the approach end of Runway 24 but couldn’t make out any airplanes on the ground. What kind of speed and rate of climb should I expect from this so-called Herc? I needed to be prepared to advise James if he needed to alter his approach.
James keyed the mike. “Springfield traffic, Grumman Niner-Eight-Six is about eight miles out on the ILS Runway 24 approach. We’ll be executing the missed and following the Herc.”
The runway was getting bigger in the windscreen, and I still didn’t see our traffic to follow. But I did see a row of white lights at the far end of the runway. Were those standard? End-of-runway lights should be red, and they’re generally not in operation in broad daylight during good weather.
Then, finally, as the white lights began to move toward us, realization smacked me between the eyes. “Herc” most definitely did refer to a C-130 Hercules airlifter, because one had just begun its takeoff roll from Runway 6. The four-engine behemoth was headed right for us.
Although a couple of miles still separated us, the distance seemed awfully short. I didn’t shriek, but I might have cursed. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!)
“Your airplane,” James said as he took off his Foggles.
I made a climbing turn and kept Herc in sight as I maneuvered to stay out of his path.
After we returned to Dayton’s frequency, the Herc checked in and picked up his IFR clearance. I don’t think the crew had seen or heard us.
Once our Tiger was back in the hangar, James and I determined that two factors had contributed to our close encounter. First, we’d made an assumption based on my earlier pattern work at Madison where the wind had favored Runway 27. When the Herc had “taken the active” at Springfield, we jumped to the conclusion that he meant Runway 24. Clearly, that wasn’t the case. Surface winds were light, and there hadn’t been any traffic in the pattern when the Herc crew made their runway selection. Also, a few knots of wind were unlikely to make a difference to the powerful transport.
Also, using “the active” in a radio call is unnecessarily vague and open to misinterpretation. It presumes that everyone else knows which runway is being referenced. In a situation like this one, where the pilots are on separate frequencies as the distance between them rapidly closes, clear communication is critical—and a phrase like “taking the active” is inherently unclear. Had we asked what the Herc meant by “the active,” we could have resolved the confusion sooner.
Sometimes “active” is in the eye of the beholder.
Elizabeth Christensen ( AOPA 5279078) is a private pilot and an engineer in the U.S. Air Force’s Aeronautical Systems Center. Her husband, a cognitive psychologist in the Air Force Research Laboratory, is an instrument-rated private pilot.