Bully on the Block

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Just when I thought it was safe to get back in the pattern and that pilots were finally taking to heart proper radio discipline, I got a frantic call from my friend Jim. He was very upset about an incident that had occurred two days earlier as he was approaching the Morristown (New Jersey) Municipal Airport from the west in his Cessna Skylane, N828JT (the N-number's been changed to ensure Jim's anonymity). (New Jersey) Municipal Airport from the west in his Cessna Skylane, N828JT (the N-number's been changed to ensure Jim's anonymity).

"I called the tower for landing instructions and after telling me to plan a right base to Runway 23, the controller called traffic about three miles away," Jim related. "I was looking for the other airplane when I heard someone call in, 'I have the target in sight. I'm armed and shooting down Eight Two Eight Juliet Tango.' That scared me! I didn't know what to think."

Jim then heard the controller admonish the pilot. "That's something you don't fool around with," he said over the frequency.

When the controller cleared Jim to land, he said he wanted to get down as quickly as he could. "I asked to land long so I could get right off the runway near the hangar. I was still frightened and as soon as I got stopped I asked the ground crew to put my airplane away as quickly as possible."

Jim, who's been flying his 182 since he got it new several decades ago and is old enough to remember when Newark Airport had gravel runways, has relegated his flying to strictly VFR days. He's a tough old bird and not easily frightened. But when he called to tell me about his "shoot-down scare" several days after it occurred, he was still obviously upset.

I asked if he thought the pilot was responding to the controller after the controller called him as traffic to the other pilot. "I don't know,' he said. "I was so shook up I didn't really hear what he said."

A controller who didn't hear the radio call, but was later told what had transpired, said he was told that the pilot asked, "Can I use Eight Two Eight Juliet Tango for target practice?"

As luck would have it, an FAA inspector was onboard another airplane in the pattern and heard the exchange. She called the tower and asked that they get the name and information about the "alleged" perpetrator.

The pilot landed and taxied to the airport's west tie-down area where he was approached by authorities. According to the Morristown tower, the pilot's actions have been reported and it's expected he'll face counseling if not more dire consequences for his indiscretion.

The "attack" airplane was a restored Bird Dog, the Cessna Model 305A, a redesign of the Model 170 that was used in Korea as the (Liaison) L-19 and later re-designated the O-1 (Observation) Bird Dog for service in Vietnam. I wondered if it was the military history of the airplane that prompted the pilot to want to pretend to be a fighter pilot.

A controller who listened to the tower tapes said that the pilot probably thought he was being funny. "But that's something you don't fool around with, especially in this day and age."

By this day and age, he was referring to post-9/11 anti-terrorist provisions. As a result of the scares, we've become hard-wired to react almost without thinking to potential terrorist threats. Hearing someone threatening to shoot him down, it's not surprising that Jim's first reaction would be to think that an F-16 doing TSA deterrent duty was asking permission to shoot him down for straying into a pop-up TFR. That's got to be frightening.

If the encounter was as disconcerting as it was to someone as experienced as Jim is, imagine how a student pilot, returning from an early solo cross-country flight might react. Not a demonstration of good communication skills.

On the other hand, it's a pretty good example of what not to do on the radio. I've climbed on this soap box before, but a recent flight in the local area once again reminded me of how inconsistent-and often unhelpful-some pilots' radio calls really are.

On a day that had to be one of the busier days at Columbia County Airport, while I was doing airwork in the vicinity of the airport, almost every time a pilot called in on downwind, someone else entering the pattern behind him came back to ask if the airplane ahead was ?full stop? or ?touch and go.? When there?s traffic in the pattern, it?s helpful to know what the pilot ahead is planning to do in order to judge how far behind to follow and where to turn to the base leg in order to keep the pattern flowing.

Equally disconcerting when approaching an uncontrolled airport is when a departing pilot simply announces, ?Columbia County, 828JT is taking off Runway 21, Columbia County.? A simple addition to the transmission indicating whether the pilot is staying in the pattern or, if not, in which direction he?ll be departing is a good stress reliever. It?s not necessary to include the altitude, but it can be helpful if the frequency isn?t terribly busy. A call such as, ?Columbia County, 828JT is taking off Runway 21, departing to the west, climbing to 2,500 feet. Columbia County,? gives everyone in the area a good idea of where to look.

I was surprised, though, that there was only one pilot who obviously wasn?t listening to the pattern patter, since he had to sandwich his call between frequent position reports to ask which runway was active. For the most part, the pilots approaching the airport were clever enough to listen up and hear what was going on without having to inject a call to ask for the active. Or they were conscientious enough to first know (from the sectional) that there was an AWOS on the field and then clever enough to listen to it to get an indication of which runway was active from the reported winds.

A couple of days later I was up on a day with an overcast at 3,000 feet and winter weather slated to arrive later in the day. The pattern was unusually quiet even for Columbia County. I was doing a number of holds at intersections and GPS WAAS LNAV/VNAV approaches when I heard another airplane call in departing from Columbia County. It was Doug Stewart (dsflight.com) who was launching on a training flight with a student during which they planned to also make several instrument approaches to the airport. I knew that from his accurate?and helpful?radio calls.

As the two of us maneuvered in the airspace around the airport it was comforting to know exactly where Doug was. Using the monitor function on the Garmin 480 I was able to monitor his calls to the approach controller at Albany while at the same time hear his position announcements over the unicom.

When I?m doing practice instrument approaches, I?m always mindful that VFR pilots approaching the airport may not be familiar with the local intersections that are part of the instrument approaches. To be sure they?re able to visualize my position, I also announce my location in relation to the airport. (The GNS 480 is helpful since whenever there?s an approach loaded it shows the direction and distance to the runway end.)

Operating near an airport is the location of most mid-air collisions, and the pucker factor is much reduced when as pilots we can get the ?big picture? of the location and intention of all the other pilots in the vicinity. [The difficulty of processing the big picture makes landing at Montreal, Canada, a bit disconcerting since the controllers respond to initial calls with the language of the caller, either French or English.] It?s also important when operating in the vicinity of any uncontrolled field to keep in mind that there?s no requirement for a pilot to have or use a radio. And even if they do have radios, there?s no guarantee that they?re on the correct unicom or tower frequency.

In a recent column I commented on the fact that a number of pilots (perhaps because they?re relying on their GPS databases rather than current sectionals and notams) are technically violating FAR 91.103. That catch-all reg requires: ?Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight ? .? I would expect available information includes the appropriate radio frequencies. But for months after signs and AWOS announcements of the change of the unicom frequency at Columbia County Airport, pilots were still using the old frequency. And at Easton, Maryland, despite a notam, ATIS broadcasts and signs in the terminal building at the Easton/Newman Field (ESN), pilots continued to attempt to land at the airport without a clearance from the new control tower that opened in mid-November 2007.

The media feeds its voracious appetite for ?news? on our mistakes. Every time a pilot has to make a gear-up landing, when a pilot makes an emergency landing on a highway, whenever a pilot lands short of an airport because of fuel mismanagement, each time there?s a runway incursion, there are video cameras ready to record the event and have it replayed on the evening news, reinforcing the misapprehension that our ?little? airplanes are dangerous. The local news didn?t pick up the story about the desire of the pilot of the Bird Dog to shoot down Jim?s Skylane, but imagine how the networks would have played up that story. It behooves us to do everything we can to operate safely and to keep as low a profile as possible. Proper radio procedure doesn?t seem too much to ask.