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Bits and Pieces

Climbing and Descending Safely

By Ian Brown, Editor - Bits and Pieces, EAA 657159

Flying out of uncontrolled airports gives you a perspective on the risks involved in depending purely upon your eyesight and radio.

In the last five years, I have been subjected to two runway incursions while on short final; one aircraft passed me at 90 degrees at the same altitude within 200 yards, one passed my nose on climb-out and two trikes passed me at my twelve o'clock at almost the same altitude. I'm sure that my experience is not unique. That third dimension, exact altitude, is our friend, but our relative speed makes things happen much faster than on the ground.

It might be useful to recount the events, to at least open a discussion. I'm among the least experienced pilots in my group so this is written with all due humility. Some of the pilots responsible for the incidents I relate were perhaps significantly more experienced, but not necessarily always at the height of their game.

Incursion 1. I'd made radio calls on downwind, base and final. On short final, an aircraft taxied onto the runway, forcing me to go around. Staying to the right of the runway, and climbing, the pilot on the runway decided to leave the circuit and cut underneath me by making a right turn before climbing to crosswind altitude. I lost sight of him completely. My conclusion was that risks are significantly higher if we don't listen to the radio, don't adequately visually check the approach and don't stay on the axis of the runway until we reach circuit altitude for departure or make the crosswind turn to stay in the circuit.

Incursion 2. After radio calls crossing the runway, joining downwind, turning base and turning final, an aircraft which had joined the downwind after me cut me off by turning a short final and landing. I went around. When asking this pilot what happened, he said he had not seen me (always a possible risk) and that his handheld comm radio battery had been dead when he took off. Conclusions here might include being super cautious if you're operating NORDO, and perhaps stretching your downwind to take extra time to look for traffic on base and final. One might also consider the sanity of choosing to fly NORDO when waiting half an hour could give you the time to charge that handheld.

Aircraft passing 90 degrees at same altitude. Airports with glider operations often have one side active for gliders and the other side active for powered aircraft. Approaching to cross the runway mid-field at circuit altitude poses special risks since you are (I was) at the same altitude as potential glider traffic. In this case, it was mid-week and no glider traffic was heard at this mandatory frequency airport, nor was it expected, but a motor-glider had decided to exercise the privileges of a glider while under power, by following the downwind on the other side of the runway. My take-away from this was to avoid crossing the runway at circuit altitude at uncontrolled airports as a method of joining the downwind, if that airport has a complex pattern such as glider traffic.

Aircraft passing on climb out. Climbing out of my local airport, it was my intent to stay on the axis until 1000' AGL and then depart the circuit roughly straight ahead. An aircraft crossed my nose at the same altitude while arriving to loop around and joining the downwind. I think this one is a no-brainer, but it did not help that I was the only one using a radio at the time. When approaching an airport, it's not a bad idea to be at circuit altitude (see below), but we should always stay well away from the zone(s) where climbing traffic will be departing.

Trikes passing at 12 o'clock at same altitude. Passing east over a low mountain range, I was level at 3,500'. Two trikes passed very close off my left wing just slightly higher. Powered VFR aircraft travelling cross country are supposed to respect the odd/east even/west altitude conventions (including trikes). What I imagine happened in this case was that the trikes had decided to push up to 3,500' to avoid turbulence near the ground at 2,500', but they were travelling West. Perhaps trikes have more difficulty hearing or using a radio, but had they used one, this risk would have been avoided. Maybe another way to mitigate this would be, if you can use higher altitudes, do so. At 5,500 you won't see many trikes and a lot less traffic in general.

Making changes in altitude presents extra risks while flying. You have a blind spot directly below you when descending and directly above when climbing. Descend early to the circuit to reduce the risk of descending onto an aircraft directly below you. The likelihood of descending onto another aircraft is significantly increased when you are on the downwind axis.

One last thought. I've heard pilots say, "You don't need to make radio calls on base" or "You only need to make one call on final," but if those calls are separated by more than a couple of minutes, you have lots of time for other pilots to forget that you are there. Special risks include people being unsure about what was said including language and accents, what was the exact location of the caller. You can't overcommunicate under normal circumstances, unless the frequency is really busy, but it's very common to hear (or not hear) undercommunication.

Frequent communication problems include stepping on someone's transmission (which you aren't always aware of, so it's up to other pilots to let you know), speaking before you completely pressed the push-to-talk, incomplete messages (missing altitude, location, call sign), and speaking too quickly. My personal bug-bear is people using local landmarks that can only be known if you're from the area. How about using distance and direction from some major landmark like an airport? Note to self: always use GPS info on distance/track to/from airport in radio calls, rather than "crossing hwy 10 South of Wherever."

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Your incidents, comments, experience would make us all safer pilots. We should be our own best teachers, with enough dialogue. Let us hear your story.

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