Air traffic is usually pretty light in my corner of the world, but usually is not the same thing as always. At one point today I was number four for departure, not a record, but unusual by local standards.
When traffic is light, pilots get complacent and maybe even a little rusty. My annual flying is 20% of what it was at its peak, so I have to work hard to stay sharp. This sometimes means doing a little bit extra, which annoys some people. But an unpracticed skill is no skill at all, so even though something is not necessary for this flight, the longer view is that since it will be necessary at some time in the short unspecified future I'd better practice it while I can. Case in point: while approaching an airport with an instrument approach, I brief and set up the approach, even if the weather is perfect and I'll be landing straight-in on a runway I spot from 15 miles out.
So I have made it a habit to get flight following for my weekly commute. The flight is short - generally less than 30 minutes - and I'm sure there are those that would say that the extra workload isn't worth it.
But it is.
Yesterday while I was turning out on departure, a Cessna 210 called ready. "Hold short awaiting IFR release," the tower said. "How far out is the traffic?" the 210 driver asked. The tower asked the inbound, who was twenty-one miles out, which makes no sense but that's another story. "We'll cancel IFR and go VFR," the Centurion said.
Which makes no sense. He could depart VFR and pick up his clearance in the air. But he didn't.
Or he could depart VFR and get flight following. But he didn't.
But I did. After levelling out, I called Center and gave my position and altitude. I didn't just talk the talk: I squawked the squawk.
"Radar contact," the controller said, "traffic off your left side at 9 o'clock, 2 miles, same altitude, same direction of flight."
The 210. I couldn't see him, but knowing that he was 30 - 40 knots faster, I turned on the autopilot and focused the majority of my attention off the left wing.
"Center, can I have an update on the traffic?"
"Now he's one mile off your left, don't you see him?" The controller's voice had that I-don't-like-this edge to it, and the extra request highlighted his concern.
I started to turn right to get my poor belly button out of the unseen 210's way. As I called Center to report the turn, I spotted the traffic.
The 210 it was.
I watched the 210 pull ahead little-by-little, and now felt comfortable putting some attention into setting up the approach. I listened to the ATIS and tuned the tower in my second radio. Sure enough, pretty soon the 210 called the tower, reporting 14 miles out, and by golly I was 14 miles out, too. I cancelled flight following, telling the Center controller that the traffic had just called the tower and I wanted to switch to tower to coordinate separation.
The controller sounded relieved.
I was set up for left downwind, and was surprised to hear the tower controller, a guy I know, send the 210 to left downwind as well, crossing him in front of me. I knew he had to have a good reason to do this, and that he didn't know that I was there yet, so adjusted accordingly. As soon as there was a hole in the unusually thick radio chatter I called and told the tower that I had "that guy who called 14 out in sight." The tower told me to follow the traffic.
The 210 crossed well in front of me and turned downwind. So far, so good. But then I lost sight of him. I stayed high, searching for the 210 in the ground clutter, but nothing nothing nothing. Where was he?
The tower was wondering, too, and I think everyone was surprised when the 210 reported "maneuvering to enter on a 45."
Maneuvering to enter on a 45? At an airport with an operating control tower? Read the A-I-M, fella!
This guy had crossed in front of me and done an unexpected maneuver in the pattern to cross in front of me again. Worse, he had slowed down to do this, and our separation was gone. When I finally caught sight of him they were much closer than I had anticipated.
We all landed safely (there was a helicopter in the pattern, too), and I taxied to a tie-down, grabbed my schoolbooks, and headed for the FBO.
I passed the 210, saying nothing to the pilots -- pilots -- but didn't really feel safe until I had a chain-link fence between me and them. And I certainly didn't cross in front of them.