Check Final

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Military pilots have a phrase they use called "check six." It reminds them how important it is to always keep checking their 6 o'clock position to make sure an enemy pilot is not sneaking up behind them. Civilian pilots should use a similar phrase, "check final," to remind ourselves to always check to make sure no one is coming in on final that we are not aware of.

Most midair collisions happen on a clear day near an airport. Many happen on final approach, with one airplane sometimes landing on top of another airplane, so obviously many pilots are not consistently verifying that final is clear. The importance of this reminder should be obvious at an uncontrolled field. From the moment I finish listening to the AWOS, if available, and tune in the CTAF, I am listening carefully to get a feeling for what is going on in the vicinity of the airport. As I taxi out, I try to build a mental picture of all aircraft departing or arriving at the airport, where they are in the pattern, and how I might fit into the flow of traffic.

As I get ready to stop to do my run-up, I carefully plan my location to ensure I can turn back towards final when I am done. During the run-up I continue to monitor the traffic flow, keeping my mental picture up to date as to where everyone is and what they are doing. When my run-up is complete, if I have any doubt about an aircraft's position, I will call and ask for clarification and then tell the other pilot what my intentions are.

With all this careful monitoring and planning, it is easy to assume I have it covered and just roll into takeoff position. However, there is no requirement to have a radio or to broadcast your position at an uncontrolled field. Some pilots get busy and forget to call. Transmissions can be blocked; pilots can be confused about where they are or what runway they are approaching. So as I leave the run-up position and head towards the runway, I always give myself enough room to angle back towards final to make sure there isn't anyone coming in that I am not aware of. It is important to check both the approved base and final, and to look for anyone coming in from the wrong direction. To confirm that I have checked the approach area, I say out loud to myself or anyone I am flying with, "final is clear."

Once I have assured myself that no one is landing on that runway, I turn back towards the direction I will be taking off in. As I advance the throttle, I am still listening on the radio and checking both my runway and any other runways to make sure no one is taking off or landing from another direction. Even if there is a strong wind right down the runway, it is possible that someone will be disoriented and try to land crosswind or even downwind.

Approaching an airport to land, the same sequence is repeated: • Monitor the radio to get a picture of what is going on. • Try to visually acquire the aircraft I am listening to. • Call anyone I can't find to clarify their position and intentions.

In the meantime I am making my own position calls to alert everyone else in the vicinity of where I am and what I intend to do. I hear a lot of different kinds of position calls on the radio, some more effective than others. The approach that I think works best uses the following format: 1. Name of airport traffic. 2. My aircraft type and call sign. 3. My location. 4. My intentions or any other information that might help someone else avoid sharing the same airspace with me.

For example, "Payson Traffic, Twin Comanche 614 Juliet Delta, right downwind Runway 24, full stop."

A good traffic call is a fine balance between not wasting time by being too wordy, and giving enough information so everyone in the area knows where you are and what you are doing. By starting with the name of the airport, anyone listening on the CTAF who is taking off or landing somewhere else can tune out whatever else I say. That is much more effective than leaving the name of the airport until the end of your transmission. Don't waste air time with superfluous phrases like, "Other aircraft please advise." You should already have a pretty good idea of other aircraft in the vicinity, and in any case, your call should trigger a call from anyone with a potential conflict.

As I get established on base leg and am preparing to turn final, I make my final position and intentions call. At the same time I "check final," looking in the direction away from the airport to make sure nobody is coming in on final or from the other side of the airport that I am not aware of. Once again I say out loud, "final is clear."

You might think that all this checking would not be necessary at a controlled field. Unfortunately that is not true, and midair collisions and near misses have occurred while both pilots were talking to the tower. I received the following example from Bill Rogers, the standardization and evaluation officer for the Arizona Wing of the Civil Air Patrol:

I had one of those lovely little surprises last week when I got my takeoff clearance. As I started moving towards the hold line I did my customary glance at the final and lo and behold, there was a C172 about 50 or 60 feet off the ground approaching the threshold. When the discussions were all complete, what had occurred was a student pilot had overshot his assigned runway (parallel runways), and a tower controller had issued me a takeoff clearance when he "thought" he didn't have any traffic on final to "his" runway. Please continue to stress the importance of checking the final, even if there is a control tower, before entering the runway. As many of you have noticed, the FAA has lots of trainees in the pipeline and will continue to for some time to come.

I experienced an even closer call while landing at Ciudad Obregon, in Sonora, Mexico, in a Cessna 414. The tower was talking in Spanish to a Cessna 206 on final to an intersecting runway. I speak Spanish and was monitoring the other aircraft to make sure I would be well clear of the intersection before he landed. It turns out we were both looking at the wrong airplane. There was another C-206 on short final ahead of the one we were looking at. Because I was busy with my own approach and thought I saw the only airplane on final, I did not see the closer airplane until we were both on the ground and rapidly approaching the intersection of the runways. We basically swapped runways, as I turned right onto his runway and he turned left onto my runway, avoiding a collision.

Experiences like these have put the "fear of final" in me. An unseen aircraft on final can be as deadly as an enemy on your tail, so keep a good watch on other traffic and always check final before taking off or landing.