Most aviators will have a near miss with another aircraft sooner or later in their career. This begs the question. Why do they happen? What can be done to prevent them in the future? My story comes during the hour building portion of my flight training, so naturally I was a very inexperienced pilot just starting to gain confidence. Thankfully for me the situation was not fatal, however, it could have been. So, what went wrong?
This story is set in the North of England at an airfield called “Sherburn”. Sherburn is an uncontrolled airfield, this means there is no ATC and no one who has authority to control aircraft traffic. Sherburn is a fairly quiet airport with a variety of visiting aircraft. This includes old WW2 training aircraft like the “Tiger Moth” which are not equipped with radios or transponders. The significance of this will become apparent later on.
Although I didn’t realize it yet, the problems started when I was doing my engine power checks at the runway holding point. I had noticed an irregularity between my left and right magnetos. Whilst I was trying to fix this problem, I missed a vital radio message from a nearby helicopter who was returning to Sherburn to enter the circuit and land.
*Helicopter Golf Lima Zulu, positioning to cross runway 24 centreline, 500 feet.*
What happened next could have been a disaster. After I resolved the issue I completed my checks and made the following radio message.
*Golf Charlie Sierra, lining up 24*
As I advanced the power to full throttle I closely monitored my ASI and applied appropriate back pressure as I reached my takeoff speed of 55 knots. At this point my eyes were still firmly glued to my cockpit instruments. My hands were busy as I put away flap, pitched and trimmed for my target climb speed. Once I was happy with my instruments, I raised my head to look at the sky ahead of me. The problem was that the sky was being obscured by a helicopter crossing directly in front of my flight path. The helicopter was only 50-100 feet away from me as I yanked my yoke sharply to the right. Thankfully the helicopter saw me and also broke away into a steep right turn.
However, the danger was not over. As I was looking for the helicopter and talking on the radio, my airspeed was decreasing whilst I was in a climbing turn. Experienced pilots will know this combination can lead to fatal consequences when operating close to the ground. By the grace of god my stall warner went off and I quickly lowered the nose and leveled the wings. It was only afterwards, once I had landed, that I realized how close I had been to entering a spin only 500ft above ground.
What followed was a heated conversation with the helicopter pilot, radio controller and a flight instructor who had witnessed the situation. The helicopter pilot was foreign and had little experience operating at small uncontrolled airfields. The point was made to him that you cannot rely on radio messages or help from radio operators when flying to uncontrolled airfields. Furthermore, crossing the centreline of an active runway is a big no no, unless you can be 100% sure there are no aircraft using it. The helicopter pilot continued his protests, stating that the radio operator should have done more to help. He was promptly reminded that aircraft with no radios, like the Tiger Moth, frequently use the airfield and that a radio operator cannot be relied upon to control traffic.
So, what did I learn…..
Many pilots will tell you that they learnt the most about flying during hour building. I would absolutely agree, this experience had a few key takeaways for me:
- Remain vigilant at all times – My first mistake was not getting my head up and taking a look to make sure the climb path was clear. All it takes is one quick glance and I would have been able to perform an RTO, avoiding the entire situation.
- Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – 3 words that I had heard a million times during flight training would have prevented how close I had come to a spin.
- Know airfields circuit patterns and rules – This one applies mostly to the helicopter pilot who was unfamiliar with UK rules and crossed the centreline of an active runway.
- Don’t panic – Had I remained calmer I would have been able to deal with the near miss and stabilize the aircraft without coming close to a stall and spin.
- Be aware of your surroundings – A simple radio message is not always enough to guarantee safety.
General Aviation is all about being safe and having awareness. It’s experiences like this that make you a better pilot.
Stay safe and happy landings!