Sunday, March 3, 2013

Aviation 101: Always Keep Your Brain Ahead of the Plane

Always be willing to learn from mistakes, they are excellent teaching tools. In aviation, the best mistakes are those that bruise the ego and nothing else.

While learning how to fly, I've made my share of mistakes, ahem, bad landings. Let's just say I'm thankful that Cessna makes airplanes with strong landing gear.

Beyond bad landings, one stupid mistake remains stuck in my mind to this day.

A Busy Crossing
While working toward my private pilot license at Oakland International Airport (OAK), my instructor took me to San Carlos Airport (SQL) located south of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). It's short runway, half the length I was accustomed to, meant landings had to be spot on.

The VFR crossing procedure required comfort with the radios and wake-turbulence awarenes. The flight path followed the solid blue line in the picture below.

First, we departed OAK on runway 27L, flying the left-hand traffic pattern while climbing to 1400 ft. ATC would then provide clearance to proceed over the approach end of runway 29 at OAK and then mid-span of the San Mateo Bridge. This portion required extra vigilance because we were required to pass beneath heavy jet arrivals at SFO. ATCs warning, "Caution, wake turbulence." was taken seriously.

After crossing the bridge, we'd contact SQL tower; they instructed us to proceed over the cement plant and enter right traffic for pattern work on runway 30. To help acquire the airport, we could tune the KNBR radio station (680 AM) on the ADF for general bearing information (this was before the time of omnipresent GPS). The procedure was the same each time I made the crossing with my instructor, and soon it became second nature.

My First Solo Crossing
On a solo flight, I decided to make the crossing to SQL to practice landings. My instructor felt confident that I could do the crossing safely. I tuned my communication and navigation radios before my departure from OAK and I even entered 680 AM into the ADF to keep a general bearing to the KNBR tower. The weather was great with little to no wind.

I completed the departure as expected and when I reached the San Mateo Bridge, I contacted SQL. No other aircraft were in the pattern, so SQL's contoller instructed me to report when the KNBR radio tower was in sight and then cleared me for the option using left-hand traffic for runway 12.

The instructions were opposite to what I had practiced in the past, but it was not a big deal. I acknowledged the request and, without hesitation, I turned directly toward the KNBR radio tower using my ADF as a guide. I the completed my landing checklist and began my descent to pattern altitude (800 ft).

This is worth repeating, I turn the the plane to track a radio tower (about 600 ft tall) and started descending. Does that seem stupid to you?

Chugging along, I mentally prepared myself for this non-standard entry to land on runway 12. I was impressed with my ability to track the radio tower, when it dawned on me--I'm flying toward a tall radio antenna and descending!!

Fearing a collision, I added power to climb and bank the plane to the right. Looking out the window, I saw the towers pass beneath me. Had I been 200 ft lower, I would have clipped the antennas and crashed.

I was shaken, but I pressed on landed at SQL. I requested and received permission to taxi to runway 30 to return to OAK. I taxied slow so I could gather my thoughts and calm my nerves. I flew back to OAK when I felt ready.

Although this incident occured over 10-years ago, I think about it a lot. It was a dumb mistake that could have cost me my life. But this mistake was valuable as I now ask myself, "Does what I'm about to do make sense?"

This question keeps complacency in check.

-Dr. Dave