February 28, 2000
Okay, so it's about two o'clock this afternoon, and I'm hip-deep in working up for the written test when the phone rings. It's Terri, inviting me to go flyin'. She's got a cross-country flight set up, and thinks I might enjoy going along.
"Are you kidding?" I sez, and she sez, "Nope, I'm perfectly serious. It's on me."
"Sold! Gimme five minutes to gather my gear, and I'll be right over."
I told her that I was studying, and she felt a bit bad about interrupting that, but I assured her that it wouldn't be hard to get back in the groove when I got home.
So, anyway, we met at the Astron flight line, pre-flighted, saddled-up, and rolled out. I hadn't seen her in a while, and we had stuff to catch up on, so it was some interesting chatter during the taxi-out. (Most notably: the recent fatal crash at PDK, and she had a speculative insight that hadn't occurred to me: the prospect of helicopter rotor-wash as a factor in that terribly unfortunate event. Of course, she emphasized that it's all conjecture, but it didn't seem out of hand given what we know of the word-of-mouth on that deal.)
After giving me intercom notes on our destination airport from the Facilities Directory, she introduced me to her Garmin GPS. (I don't recall which model.) We planned to fly 60 NM. to Washington-Wilkes (IIY) passing over Athens (AHN), tracking in & outbound on the Athens VORTAC. All this, of course, on-top of the fundamental pilotage and dead reckoning on a really very fine CAVU day. (I mean: unbelievable. We'd eventually just barely climbed out to our cruise altitude of 3500 feet when I already saw the airport at Winder, and I don't think I ever saw that before.) Winds at initial contact were 210 @ 5 kts. We rolled toward Runway 25, hit the run-up pad, checklisted clean, took the clearance, the runway, and the air, in that proper order, turning south-to-east with natural ease, and it was just a wonderful thing.
The whole flight out and back was a snap.
...Until we got back to LZU, and that's when this little tale got to the point: "confidence".
Unfortunately, my tape recording stops just before the events I'll try to describe, so I can't bring a precise transcript. However, the picture's pretty clear to me, and when we got back to Astron, I had three heads together and going over it, and not just the two of us aboard Citabria 53883.
Flying back to LZU from the east, with Runway 25 active, I usually work my way just a bit south of the extended runway centerline. This comes from experience with that tower: for traffic from that direction, they often set-up a right turn to the left base leg of the approach. (blue course below)
The inbound course from Athens or Winder is about due west. That works out pretty naturally south of the runway centerline, and it all adds up to a logical and convenient right turn to left base for Two Five, where the usual pattern is right traffic (red above) instead of left. It means I don't have to fly over to the north side of the airport to join the normal right traffic pattern.
Air Traffic Control there is generally very good: pleasantly and crisply professional, versatile and happy to help, and in the game with very good situational awareness. In fifty hours' flying around LZU, I've only seen one occasion when they dropped the picture even for a moment.
Today was the second.
I called my initial contact to the Class D airspace at 7.5 miles. (That's on the tape, and I also very clearly recall looking at the GPS for the distance.) ATC replied with the numbers and instruction to maneuver to the southeast (naturally) for a left base pattern-entry for R25 and to report at two miles. Roger, Wilco, nothin' to it. I reported two miles prepared for the left base, as instructed. ATC updated the traffic picture: the Warrior on his right base, and a Skylane inbound for right downwind entry. By the time I was on my left base, I'd be number two for landing behind the Warrior.
A bit later, I turned to the left base. The Warrior had crossed my nose to the left and was well down on short final (about at my ten o'clock, low), and that's when I heard the Debonair reporting his right base entry from the northeast. I looked and made him a tad east of my one o'clock. He was a bit further out on the runway centerline than me, but not by a whole lot, with the result that I would turn final inside him, and pretty close. The thing is; he just appeared out there at my one o'clock when I looked after hearing his report. Otherwise, I never would have known he was there until I eyebelled him, and that would have been close for that kind of surprise. Another thing is: I have damned good reason to believe that he was behaving as instructed. (I'll get to that later.) I must have missed his direction from ATC, but I heard him call his base.
I recognized the pilot's voice.
So, what we had was two airplanes flying opposite base legs: mine left to the runway (headed north), and his right (headed south). As I neared my turn to final, I could see that one of us was going to have to change his plan. I didn't want the Debonair - a faster airplane - that close behind me on final approach. Without asking, I was pretty sure that he didn't want that, either.
Very near my turn to final, I briefly considered a right turn initiating an orbit to the south, just to get out of the Debonair's way. I'm thinking this, and watching the action, and also vaguely hearing the Skylane entering his right downwind. I say "vaguely" because I was a lot more concerned with the action right close around me. Already, I was sort of instinctively rolling slightly to my right, knowing that the Debonair ought to be first in line, but that was a deviation from my base leg, and I figured somebody needed to know that none of this was going to work out.
I pretty quickly (like: in two seconds) ditched the idea of a southern orbit, though, for several reasons:
*** It would put us beak-to-beak for a short while, making my turn a bit more urgent than I was happy with;
*** The radio was pretty busy and I didn't think I would find time to announce it. I didn't want to point my nose at the Debonair's nose ("He'll be turning final any second now...") without announcing it at that proximity, and;
*** I didn't want him on my six o'clock, out of sight during the southern half of the turn. I hadn't heard from him, and didn't know what he was thinking.
When I heard a hole in the radio traffic and having made up my mind, I punched the button and announced, "Citabria 53883, I'll be going north, and it looks like I'll be number three for landing."
LZU ATC came right up with agreement on my plan, and clarified everybody's clearances. I crossed the runway centerline some distance to the north before I started my right turn, just as the Debonair rolled into his right turn to final. For a moment there, he and I looked like a pair of fighters working a circle to get on each others' tails. He was less than a half-mile away.
Somewhere in all this, I recall hearing the words from ATC, "I didn't see you out there, sir..." and I still don't know who he was talking about (except that it wasn't me). That kinda bothers me: there are details of the episode that aren't clear to me. All the elements are present, though.
I know that, because of this:
When Terri and I taxied up to the tie-down and dismounted, J.W. was just walking up. He's another CFII at Astron. He's got a new instrument student with a Debonair, and he'd taken today's hop in a friend's Debonair to check-out in that airplane. It had been him out there turning final.
With a big grin on his face, he told us, "If it had been anyone but you guys, I'd have been scared."
We went over it and agreed on the essentials of the action, but nobody really knew how it got to the point it had.
Terri was cooly, but emphatically, complimentary. She'd sat in the back seat through the whole thing, watching, but not saying a word. Standing there and packing her gear, she told me, "Well, Billy, I think you're about ready to be a private pilot." She complimented my situational awareness, the fact that I think my way through things, and make proper decisions, on time.
It was a real lesson in lots of ways. The whole thing only ran about a minute in real-time, but it felt like a lot longer. The lessons reinforced today go like this:
*** ATC is not God. They goof, just like we do sometimes. It can happen to any human being.
*** They're not in the airplanes. That means that they're not nearly as responsible for thinking through airborne situations as we are.
*** The press of time (equaling motion in the air) requires command decision. Don't let things slide: do something. Decide as best you can on the action, and then take it. "Pilot In Command".
*** Don't get flummoxed. Stay in the game. One not inconsiderable benefit is that, when things are back in order, you can afford to be nice and wish everybody a nice day.
That's it. Back to the books.
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