Newsflash: A Powerful Radio Won't Shoo Away Traffic
I don't spend much time placing people into little boxes so, what hell, let's spend some time placing people into little boxes. There are various ways to sort pilots by their experience and predilections and one binary category consists of those pilots who get little uncontrolled country airports and those who don't. I think I encountered one of the former yesterday.
I was out sticking landings in the Cub, trying to refine my power-off wheelies to perfection. The Cub has no electrical system and thus no radio, although we do have an Icom portable VHF with an external antenna. I usually carry this in the airplane and maintain a listening watch on the UNICOM frequency. But I don't transmit because the Icom's output is so execrable—it puts out an unintelligible garbled hash that causes more confusion than position clarity. So I keep it zip lip, listen closely and watch carefully. Much as some pilots who fly in suits hate the concept, we can still fly without radios at uncontrolled airports. (But not for much longer, I'm sure.)
Fifteen minutes into my pattern grind, I hear an inbound aircraft self-announce with what many of us agree is fingernails on the chalkboard: "Is there any traffic in the Venice area? Please report." Now if the Cub's Icom had a range of more than 50 feet, I'd be tempted to say something like, "Yeah, this is a yellow Cub in the pattern. I've been flying in #$%#@!& stealth mode but you reminded me to speak up. So here I am." Of course, if I had no radio at all, I would be in stealth mode and our jet jockey—he was flying an Embraer—would have to deal with it.
He called a 13-mile left base for runway 22 and again asked about traffic in the area. At this point, an R22 showed up in the pattern, announced, and the jet asked if there was other traffic in the pattern. The R22, which I took to be flown by a student and instructor, told the jet there was some little yellow thing somewhere on the downwind. This caused quite a bit of consternation in the jet, apparently, culminating in a series of queries from the jet to the helo concerning my whereabouts.
The jet pilot's tone suggested a combination of nervousness and frustration that he was dealing with a ragwing relic that wouldn't show up on his TCAS. After the fifth such exchange, I decided to just get the hell away from the airport until this guy landed. His nervousness was contagious. The R22 pilot duly reported my plodding pattern exit, despite the fact that he and his student kept saying they were at Charlotte County airport, not Venice. Sometimes they corrected this, sometimes not. But hey, they're within 20 miles of each other. Close enough.
In the Embraer pilot's defense, the light conditions were horrible—late afternoon raking light and he was flying right into it for a straight in to 22. But wait a minute. He was doing that by choice. And here's the don't-get-it part. Pilots flying faster aircraft often assume that it's their right to make a long straight-in approach—and they're right. But some seem to assume that they can't, when conditions dictate, fly a standard pattern. Numbed in the womb of flying IFR flightplans with constant comm and flickering TCAS symbology, they are worse than fish out of water when entering the pattern at an uncontrolled field. The radio becomes a blunt instrument that's supposed to ward traffic away as if by magic.
My observation would be this: If you're that nervous about traffic you can't see because of poor lighting conditions, fly a standard pattern. If you're that nervous about traffic you can't see because of poor lighting conditions, never approach an uncontrolled airport from down sun assuming that your radio calls will protect you. Had the Embraer driver altered his course to the left 2 degrees on that 13-mile base, he would have entered the downwind from up sun and the Yellow Peril would have been incandescently obvious.
This is Survival Skills 101. Radios and TCAS are just part of it. Eyeballs still do the heavy lifting.