It’s a sunny Saturday at last! The parking lot is full and Doc is holding office hours with a waiting list twenty deep. Melanie is dispatching all seven of the company aircraft for flight training while the line boys are directing traffic at the fuel pumps. The ramp, which seems so spacious during the quieter week days, is jam packed with Medevac helicopters, a transient Alpha-Foxtrot Pilatus, and a charter Navajo disembarking passengers. Pilots who have waited all week to motor off in search of that delicious $100 hamburger are taxiing through a maze of aircraft eager to break ground. Welcome to Somerset Airport!
The day always starts out pleasantly enough. At 8 AM many pilots are just waking up but the die hard are out to enjoy the quiet early morning air and relatively quiet radios. By 10 AM, however, all bets are off. The radios are quickly jammed with the shrill squeal of too many transmit buttons being pressed simultaneously. Courtesy is the first casualty as pilots vie for air time. If we are not careful, safety can become the second. Basic rules of etiquette will also improve safety: think, listen and look first, speak last. When you consider that 51% of mid-air collisions occur in the traffic pattern we all have a strong motivation to see and avoid.
The Somerset CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency) is 123.00 and shared by several local airports which are equally active on a weekend: Linden, Robbinsville, Belmar, Blairstown, East Stroudsburg, Penn Ridge, and Braden to name a few. Just like Somerset, these airports go into overdrive on Saturday as bases for not only fixed wing traffic but also helicopter movements, banner tows, blimp launches, glider flights and increasing numbers of parachute activities (Jumpers away, Jumpers away, over East Stroudsburg airport, JUMPERS!!!). Time to review right of way rules in 91.113.
With all these airmen and women fighting to be heard and enamored of their own voices, the CTAF is overwhelmed and no one is heard or understood. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the FAA points out the majority of mid-airs occur during daylight in good VFR, within 5 miles of an airport during late morning/early afternoon hours on a warm weekend day. Sound familiar? According to the FAA document How to Avoid A Mid-Air Collision–most mid-air collisions occur not because two aircraft are approaching head-on, but because two aircraft are converging at shallow angles consistent with one aircraft being overtaken by another. The see and avoid principal has broken down. So what can we do to keep the fun in weekend flying?
Let’s start with the basics:
● Wash your windshield. Is that a plane in the distance or a dead bug from your last flight? Or maybe a water spot from the rain storm last week? Where forward visibility is concerned, cleanliness really is next to Godliness.
● Proper radio technique….LISTEN. With all those airports sharing frequencies expect congestion on a sunny weekend. Start listening up 10 miles out. If you hear a bunch of aircraft in the pattern for runway 26 right hand traffic chances are pretty good you can expect right traffic for 26 as the active. No need to clutter the frequency with a request for an airport advisory. Keep track of the aircraft calling out as you approach. Be aware that some aircraft are NORDO (no radio). Begin and end every transmission by identifying the airport. And please, save a description of the burger you enjoyed at Blairstown for the ground. Making a date for lunch or comparing the menus of your latest $100 hamburger has no place on a busy frequency. Banish the word “active” from your vocabulary! Give us a number, “Runway 30 or Runway 12” so the next pilot knows just what the active is! Use some common sense when it comes to making pattern calls. Imagine if everyone at the five local airports on 123.0 called “crosswind”, “downwind’, “base”, “final’ and “short final” on every pattern. I have also seen some pilots who will not turn the aircraft (base to final) until they have keyed the mic to make the call…Aviate, Navigate, then Communicate (if you have time).
● Flight following and TCAS/TIS are great, but they aren’t silver bullets. Don’t let radar make you complacent. VFR flight following is a workload permitting service. Controllers have their hands full on Saturdays too. Likewise, on board traffic systems are great, but know their limitations. If the other guy (or gal) forgot to turn their transponder on you won’t receive any warning. Jumpers, gliders etc. don’t carry transponders. Even if TCAS and other products are working perfectly, if you are staring at the screen in the cockpit trying to interpret its information, you are not looking out the window which is where the danger lies.
● Cockpit organization: Get yourself organized on the ground before takeoff. Fold your charts, write down frequencies and set up GPS. It’s hard to look for traffic when you’re rifling through your flight bag for your AFD.
● Use passengers. They are an on-board resource and have a vested interest in identifying conflicting traffic. Explain to them (before takeoff!) how to scan for traffic and identify aircraft location using the “o’clock” method. Also, make sure they understand the concept of “sterile cockpit”. There are times when making conversation is just too distracting for safe flight.
● Lighten up! Lights on for safety.
● Scan, Scan, Scan FAR 91.113 says vigilance shall be maintained any time VFR conditions apply.
● Collision Avoidance starts when you turn the key and stops when you hand them back to Miss Melanie. Make sure you are listening up as you taxi and run-up. Try to make space in the run-up area. And always call clear of the runway. Unless you have x-ray vision, it is physically impossible to see both the approach and departure ends of KSMQ runways on the ground.
● Be aware of blind spots and aircraft limitations.
● Finally, we are a very busy training airport. Most Saturdays find five or six active flight instructors coaxing along the next generation of pilots. That means we have a bunch of young (in hours!) aviators learning the art of radio telephony. Most are suffering from mike fright to begin with. Please be patient with the rookies. We were all there once and the only way to learn is by doing!