By Murray Shaw

I learned about losing situational awareness from this.

It was a blustery day in the early springtime, and I was near the end of a local solo flight near Whanganui.

In the circuit, I lost situational awareness and wound up too close to another aircraft, forcing the pilot to take avoiding action.

How had I got here?

A day like any other

This was a typical weekend flight. I had tracked west up the coast, found a hole in the clouds, and climbed above 5000ft for some general handling exercises and aerobatics. That was followed by a touch and go at a nearby airstrip, before I tracked back to the aerodrome.

I’ve been flying since 1981 and try to fly as often as I can afford it – about once a week.

Being approved to do my own maintenance, I try hard to keep the aircraft in good condition. In simple terms, it’s my neck on the line, and I’m not ready to die yet!

I try to take that same attitude into my flying, working on being safe – not just for myself, but for others too. I take pride in that I generally do well in managing separation in a busy, uncontrolled VFR airspace.

It didn’t happen this time

Map of scenario

Returning east back down the coast, I checked the AWIB (aerodrome and weather information broadcast) to note that the wind had increased from 12 to 15 knots and was now gusting 22. It was a slight crosswind, and the pressure had dropped slightly. Monitoring the traffic told me I’d have to slot in among a couple of other aircraft.

I made a radio call to a nearby beach that I intended to join downwind 29. There was traffic joining from different directions – I’ll call them aircraft X, Y, Z, and A.

Aircraft X tracked to the nearby water tower, and then joined overhead. Aircraft Y was coming in from the north, and tracking to the coast.

As I approached the river mouth, aircraft Z called downwind 29 touch and go #2, followed by aircraft A calling finals 29 full stop #1.

Aircraft X had called at the water tower and was descending non-traffic to join downwind 29. This circuit went without a hitch.

Aircraft A landed, aircraft Z called finals low approach and overshoot, aircraft X crossed threshold 11 to join downwind, and aircraft Y crossed the coast five miles west to track down the coast to join.

Calling finals

I made my finals call at about three quarters of a mile, followed by aircraft X calling downwind for a full stop. I did my touch and go and was climbing out, when a visiting aircraft on the ground called entering and backtrack 29.

This was followed by a finals call from aircraft X. The visiting aircraft rolled and departed south from the downwind.

I was on my crosswind nearing circuit height – 1000ft – and the end of the crosswind, when aircraft Z called downwind touch and go, and aircraft Y called downwind 29.

I looked for aircraft Y and found them away out to my right, very early downwind. We had a brief conversation and I told them I’d be turning downwind in front of them. Turning into the downwind, I found I couldn’t see aircraft Z.

This was not unexpected. The wind was causing a lot of haze, we were at the same altitude, and the aspect of the aircraft made it difficult to see. But the timing of the calls indicated they should have been well ahead of me.

This is quite a common situation at this aerodrome. I knew I’d pick them up when they turned onto base or on finals.

I also pulled back my power to ensure I wasn’t overtaking anyone on the downwind, so instead of 115 knots I was doing between 90 and 100.

My brain shrunk!

But somewhere around here, my brain shrunk from two aircraft to one!

I was looking for an aircraft on base or final. I’d heard aircraft X’s final call on climb-out from my touch and go, and expected to see it on the ground or close to it. It didn’t register that it wasn’t where I expected it to be.

Then I saw an aircraft just inside two miles from the threshold, and I perceived it as being the one I was following. As I passed abeam of it, I rolled into my base.

Settling into my base I did a quick scan to the right (checking for unexpected traffic on the finals vector), as aircraft Z called diverting to a location nearby.

What a clanger!

Right then the bomb dropped. It wasn’t a penny or a ball, but a bloody great clanger!

Close abeam to my right was aircraft Z, and they were saying on the radio, “Can you see me now?”

I didn’t have to take another look to realise the aircraft I had perceived as aircraft Z, was in fact, aircraft Y.

I affirmed I could see them, and apologised.

As they were already turning away and diverting, I continued my approach. But ultimately I had to overshoot and go around, as aircraft X was still on the runway.

The following circuit and landing were without incident.

What went wrong?

There was nothing major, but a bunch of environmental issues.

The circuit was busy, but not excessively so. It was windy, so aircraft on downwind had comparatively high ground speeds, while aircraft on finals had comparatively low ground speeds.

When two aircraft are at the same altitude, the one in front of you can be hard to spot when the aspect is tail-on against a hazy sky.

Add that they are white, and it gets worse. Strobes help, but whites tend to fade into the background – and I did not see the ones on aircraft Z, on downwind.

The biggest factor for me was the finals call from aircraft X. This was made when I was climbing out from my first touch and go, which, to me, strongly suggests it was made at, or before, three miles out.

The call was just 'finals', not 'long finals' or 'three-mile finals', or whatever. No indication was given to provide a clue where on the finals they were, and there was no other finals call made.

I’m not blaming that pilot – the critical error was mine.

At some point, I lost track of what type of aircraft it was. I became too focused on the aircraft on finals, and assumed the one I saw was what I was following.

I failed to maintain contact with the aircraft immediately in front of me, and position myself to clearly see it throughout the leg.

I lost my situational awareness at an important time.

Aviation has a way of teaching humility – just when you think you’re nailing it.

And I’m somewhat humbler now.


Image credit: Murray Shaw

Posted in Pilot performance flying practice and professionalism, Aerodromes;

Posted 60 days ago