Friday, December 12, 2008

Defensive Driving

Dan and I were working on short- and soft-field landings when another Skyhawk called in 15 miles east. I like to anticipate when another airplane is going to enter the pattern; it's proactive collision avoidance. So, I started my stopwatch and figured it would be 7 or maybe 8 minutes before we would have to look for the guy. This pilot sounded like a student, so I figured he had flown up the interstate from Logan or Ogden.

Something wasn't right, though. People who call in 15 miles east are usually pretty scratchy, but his radio was crystal clear.

"I'm not sure he's to the east," I warned Dan, "Keep your eyes open." We turned on the landing light, making ourselves more visible. We went back to working on precise control of airspeed.

But eight minutes passed and we had heard nothing. "Tower, 55J," I asked, "Any update on the traffic?"

"I'm just past American Falls," he said. That's southwest, not east, and he was still 10 miles away. I reset the stopwatch. His voice was calm, but he still sounded like a student.

The tower was confused, too. "Where did you depart from?" they asked. The pilot named an airport in Washington. Now I knew two things: this was no student, and he really was somewhere west. I reminded Dan about how to scan for traffic, but left him to concentrate on his patterns while I did most of the scanning.

The appointed time came and went, and this time the tower asked him before I could ask them to ask him. "About 15 west," he replied, "I'll climb up to see if I can get something better from my GPS." This makes no sense. Fifteen miles west is the desert, so there is nothing but air between him and the GPS satellites. Climbing was pointless.

I thought about landing and waiting for this guy to find himself. The chance of him stumbling into the pattern from an odd direction was pretty high. I also thought about bugging out to the practice area for a while, but he was just as likely to be there as here, so that didn't gain us anything.

Eight more minutes passed. "Say altitude," the tower asked him. "Nine-thousand five-hundred," he replied, putting him 5,000 feet above the airport. He would need a steep descent. But at least we weren't going to hit him.

Dan and I landed, and the wandering Skyhawk landed while we were talking. Hazard gone. I sent him back up for some solo practice.

He walked into the FBO and ordered fuel. "Radio problems?" I asked as casually as I could, intending to beat him up. "Yeah, Comm 2 kept cutting out so I couldn't get the ATIS." That's not what I had meant, but I realized that yelling at him would do no good. He seemed like a nice man, retired perhaps. He had filed IFR to a different airport, but the weather there was below his personal minimum (1800 overcast, visibility 10), so he had diverted to ours. Seems like a reasonable decision, and an explanation for being so %^$**&%# lost.

Dan got the best lesson of all: be proactive about avoiding collisions. Be aware of other airplanes in the area, to the extent possible, and consider getting out of someone's way before he gets uncomfortably close.

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