Pattern PITAs: Just ... Shut Up

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I can't put a date on it exactly, but about 15 years ago I decided it was neither productive nor professional to get into snippy arguments and wise-ass comments on the Unicom frequency. Nothing useful ever comes of it and after the frequency quiets down, you feel like you need a shower.

Over the weekend, however, I found myself on the verge of a backslide. I was flying with my instrument student, logging some approaches on a lovely Florida day. The wind was out the southwest but variable, a 45-degree crosswind on both runway 23 and 13. Airplanes were using both, but we picked 13 because it's a closer taxi and the taxiways are all ripped up to get to 23, requiring a back taxi. (That will play a role here.)

Fifteen minutes into our exercise, a light sport came putting in from the south, quite obviously flown by an older pilot who was clearly confused that airplanes were using two runways. After a brief exchange with another pilot about this, he slipped into a pedantic tone informing all on the frequency that there could only be one "active runway." He got a little insistent about it and that got him as good as he was giving. Someone snapped back in an even more pedantic tone, "No. At a non-towered airport, there is no active runway." This was obviously uttered by someone who knew his way around the ACs, something I suspect our LSA pilot hadn't cracked in a while. When he persisted, the other pilot got yet more strident, but with the same words: No active runway at an a non-towered airport, meaning no single runway limit and the pilots figure this out on the fly. Meanwhile, the PTT was just starting to dent my thumb, but at the last second, I snapped to my senses and recalled my pledge of yore.

I thought it was over. But, no. Not yet. The pilot landed, tanked up at the self serve then called the FBO wondering how he was supposed to get back to the runway with the taxiways all torn up like they were. Now, another lecture from the FBO lady, who was actually quite polite and patient in explaining that if he had read the ^%$#*& airport NOTAMS, he'd know that the taxiways were under construction, requiring back taxi to get to some runways. She explained how to get from A to B, literally.

The pilot somehow found his way to the intersection of the closed runway and runway 23. (He also ignored the AWOS item about no intersection departures, but I digress.) And now it was my turn. At the time, we had just reported we were in the right downwind for 13—that runway has right traffic. Our LSA friend announced that he was departing runway 23, that the wind favored this runway and so we should be using it, too, rejoined by a comment that suggested, "What are your intentions? I'm using 23." What I wanted to say was this: "Look Sparky, if you want to be an air traffic controller, take the civil service exam and apply to Oke City. Otherwise, put your compass on S and shine on." What I actually said, was "Yes, and we're using 13. You go right ahead and we'll take care of the separation." He did and we did. The compass on S part worked out, too.

I make two observations about all this: One, if you're going to barge into someone else's pattern and start offering advice, at least know what the hell you're talking about or be prepared to get spanked in detail and in multiples. A little courtesy and humor might help.

Second, I couldn't help but imagine some hapless instructor motoring around with a starry-eyed Discovery Flight candidate and trying to explain this bitchy little bit of Unicom Kabuki. "Ah, well you see…ah…it's complicated." No wonder people don't want to learn to fly.

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Comments (26)

With all that fun going on try adding a jet or a fast turboprop to the mix. I was arriving at a GA airport in VMC conditions and had to explain to my FO, who was the flying pilot with a PT121 backround, that we still fly patterns even though we were a jet on an IFR clearance at an uncontrolled field. I guess the best thing is to fly defensively and safely and save the arguments for when you are on the ground.

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 18, 2014 6:37 PM    Report this comment

Hahahaha! Seen this one play out too many times. I figure you can't fix stupid, not even with duct tape (although it can muffle the noise somewhat)!

During my last flight review / IPC, my instructor admonished me to monitor 121.5 whenever possible on my #2 radio. If you thought Unicom was entertaining, try monitoring guard for a while! I nearly messed myself hearing an airliner get into it with the "guard police"!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | November 18, 2014 6:48 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for flying a pattern Matthew, it's as easy in jet. I was in the process of entering a left downwind to 13, an Arrow is taking off on 27 except he isn't he is taking off on 22. I am searching for him on 27 can't find him so I decide to level off at 1500' until I see him. He then says he is doing a right turn out, well at least he announced he was doing a right turn out. I saw him as flew underneath me 200 feet below and 50 feet to my left. It got my attention, but I kept my cool and refrained from discussing it with him as he departed. Doubt he ever saw me.

Posted by: Jack Healan | November 18, 2014 8:12 PM    Report this comment

I once witnessed the concluding "conversation" after a guy insisted on landing downwind on the active runway with an aircraft already rolling for a takeoff in the correct upwind direction. The aircraft taking off locked his wheels on the reject to make the mid field turn off to get out of the way.

He confronted this moron at his airplane. Not a word was exchanged but buddies nose went from an "Aerostar" silhouette to one more similar to that found on an "Apache" ...........

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | November 18, 2014 8:46 PM    Report this comment

(In pedantic tone) "You cannot have a 45 degree crosswind on both 23 and 13" :-) ha ha

Posted by: A Richie | November 18, 2014 8:59 PM    Report this comment

Story reminds me of a instrument training flight I had with an oldsalt instructor in FL. Approach right smack into the running pattern of a busy GA airport (non towered). Several instructors with students started to fling all over the place, as Mr. Oldsalt was going to lead my putput right through everyone. The argument on the radio was almost harmless, compared to the one we had inside the cockpit.

I remembered the meaning of PIC and decided to discontinue the approach under heavy artillery fire from the right seat. He did not speak another word after I told him that the lesson had ended and we'd part ways upon landing. The only instructor I've ever met who looked you square in the eye, asking for $100 per hour of dual given.

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 19, 2014 2:55 AM    Report this comment

I recall one time when I was entering the pattern of a local uncontrolled field, and the pilot who landed just before me kept trying to convince me to land on the runway with a tailwind, because it "wasn't that bad". Never mind the fact that from the direction I was coming from, I was already perfectly set up for the classic 45-degree midfield entry to left traffic for the "correct" runway, and I would have had to go out of my way to set up for landing on the "wrong" runway.

It's one thing to make an announcement on the CTAF to left a pilot about to depart that his door is still open, or a landing pilot doesn't have his gear down, but it's an entirely different thing to try and make decisions for the PIC of the other aircraft.

Also, to the commenter that mentioned monitoring 121.5, I agree. I tried that one time, but after about 20 minutes of hearing nothing but airliners asking for frequencies to try and contact ATC on, I gave up and turned the thing off. About the only place I'd consider monitoring 121.5 is in the Washington DC SFRA, or if I see some fighter jets pulling up beside me.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 19, 2014 8:24 AM    Report this comment

As one wag puts it, be careful about arguing with a fool, because others may not be able to tell which is which.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | November 19, 2014 11:27 AM    Report this comment

At many Australian uncontrolled fields they have recorders running on the Unicom frequency that are used to log registration numbers for landing fee collection (radio calls being mandatory). I have from time to time considered setting that up here at the home port....could probably put together some entertaining audio montages!

Posted by: John Wilson | November 19, 2014 11:33 AM    Report this comment

When someone insists their point of view is the right one, and you know it isn't, a good rejoinder is "As much as I'd like to agree with you, if I did, we'd both be wrong."

Posted by: Keith Bumsted | November 19, 2014 12:12 PM    Report this comment

The silver lining is Sparky was communicating and you knew his intentions.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | November 19, 2014 12:40 PM    Report this comment

One time I had a radio failure while flying circuits in the pattern, and didn't realize the radio was dead until I had just completed a touch-and-go and was on climbout again. I quickly switched to Com 2, announced my position, and this snarky voice says "Nice to hear you on the frequency, aircraft blah blah blah" and then from out of nowhere a Skyhawk closes in unannounced from my right rear and flies close formation for about 15 seconds just off my right wingtip less than a wingspan away. This jerk was not content to chew me out on the radio, but instead put us both in danger (I was climbing out at 80 mph through 300 feet when he did this). From the looks of him, he appeared to be a young wannabee Top Gun with an attitude problem. I radioed something to the effect of "Had radio failure, switched to Com 2" but it was a useless attempt to placate this idiot. Not to mention that NORDO traffic is to be expected sometimes, although I don't encourage it if all possible. It made for a fun day at the airport.

My opinion is that everyone needs to just drop the bravado and shut up. I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, but I refuse to go tit-for-tat with another A/C in the air. You don't know what the other guy's personal situation is that caused the mixup, but it sure as hell isn't helped by upping the ante with aggressive tactics, be it on the radio or physical actions in the air.

Posted by: A Richie | November 19, 2014 5:19 PM    Report this comment

It's not just pilots; sometimes ATC and towers don't know the regulations and you have to "defer" and call their supervisors to enlighten them after landing.

On a note about uncontrolled fields, the BEST comeback I ever heard from a unicom operator when asked what runway was active said "they are all active".

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 19, 2014 6:16 PM    Report this comment

A. Richie, I agree.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 20, 2014 6:40 AM    Report this comment

This is the reason why I avoid non-towered airports with students. Too many unprofessional pilots operating at those ego hives.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | November 20, 2014 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Amy, in my most over inflated humble opinion, ego hives have no upper or lateral limits.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 20, 2014 3:57 PM    Report this comment

Look - we've all been beginners, and we've all made mistakes - and, yes, we've tried to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit we goofed up by engaging in bluster and bluff.

Engaging in a pissing contest on the party line, where everybody can hear you, is a fool's game. Just invest the time to figure out who the guy is and have a polite, friendly conversation with him one-on-one. Like as not, he'll say, "Sorry!" and we can get back to the real things in flying - things like attracting kids to replace us geezers or doing what we're doing at my home airport - trying to keep an idiot Town Manager from closing the airport - OR, fighting the FAA's arrogance so that ANY of us can keep flying.

Don't try to embarrass the old guy on the radio - you'll get exactly what you got. Arrogance begets arrogance; humility begets the same. That's one very important lesson I learned growing up in rural West Virginia, where insult is sometimes settled with gunfire and old ladies can sit through two green lights and nobody touches his horn.

Posted by: JAMES WILLS | November 21, 2014 6:34 AM    Report this comment

This is not really related, but towered airports are not immune to adventure either. A few weeks ago, I was out flying the pattern. The controller was not having a good day. He had a small radio problem and there was plenty of action.

On my first circuit, he forgot about me and I had to gently remind him that I was on extended downwind.

Second circuit - he forgot about me again. This time, I didn't wait ".....ready to turn base".

Third circuit - he cleared me for the option quickly after I took off but....
...then he cleared another aircraft to take off when I was on close-in base. I could tell it
wasn't going to work. "Be advised....on close in base". He had me then do a 270 back to
final to waste time.

I decided to call it quits before his bad day became my bad day.

Posted by: JEROME KAIDOR | November 21, 2014 7:43 AM    Report this comment

Arguing or "discussing" things in the pattern is a waste of time and ties up the frequency. If someone insists I offer to take it up on the ground and refuse to communicate any further with them.

For what it is worth, my experience is that the authors airport has more than its share of "pattern based" instructors.

Posted by: James Hiatt | November 21, 2014 8:47 AM    Report this comment

What's a pattern-based instructor?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 21, 2014 9:55 AM    Report this comment

If 23 has a left-hand pattern and 13 has a right-hand that airport is set up for 23-downwind and 13 cross-wind conflicts that are bound to confuse "Sparkys". In that environment Unicom might have defused the situation by announcing that "the wind favors either 13 or 23, both are in use; right traffic on 13", although s/he has no obligation to be a controller either.

I have recently been flying out of an uncontrolled airport with 3 runways that all can be active on any given day. The main is 13/31 with 08/26 and 17/35 as possibilities. Everybody communicates, and somehow it works with anything from a Tiger Moth on the grass 17/35 to a Conquest on the GPS approach to 31 at the same time.

Posted by: David MacRae | November 21, 2014 9:57 AM    Report this comment

If you haven't had any experience with "Sparky", it's only a matter of time, and it's actually a good learning experience of how not to operate at a non-towered airport. I was announcing my position inbound on the 45 to a non-towered airport. Sparky had just departed, was on the upwind, and obviously owned the pattern. When we found ourselves in formation on the downwind, Sparky gave me the old "Say Intentions!". I only wish I could have beat him to it. I 360'd to the right and followed him in.

Take away: Although most people announce their position fairly well, they may not be looking for the other traffic in the pattern. Be prepared for anything at a non-towered airport - leave yourself an out or have a plan to accommodate Sparky. And Sparky is always right - no sense in arguing.

Posted by: Dana Files | November 21, 2014 11:28 AM    Report this comment

Actually, David, the right traffic on 13 might deconflct more than it conflicts. Aircraft departing 13 turn right away from the downwind entry point for 23. If it were left traffic, the crosswind would T-bone the downwind entries for 23. The runway intersection is two thirds down the length of 23. If you look at the diagram and draw it out, you can see the geometry.

Regardless, you'll always have some conflicts in two-runway ops. I can remember a time in my flying career when this wasn't such an agita-inducing thing. When I was based at Oxford in Connecticut, with a single runway, we routinely did NBD approaches to 18 and ILSs to 36 with no sweat and no frequency heartburn. Now, the airport has a tower and I doubt they allow that. Maybe every airport should have a tower, right?

It gets down to what we expect a pilot to know and understand. It's reasonable to expect a competent pilot to enter a pattern and land in the circumstances I've described here.Also reasonable to expect he's read a NOTAM closing a runway or taxiway. (Sen. Inhofe, are you listening?) If he gets confused and botches it, well, that happens. It's allowed. But he's not going to be well received if he gets confused, can't cope and then starts lecturing everyone else as a result.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 21, 2014 11:34 AM    Report this comment

"When I was based at Oxford in Connecticut, with a single runway, we routinely did NBD approaches to 18 and ILSs to 36 with no sweat and no frequency heartburn. Now, the airport has a tower and I doubt they allow that. "

Since the NDB has been decomissioned, they don't allow it any more ;-P

Though on a serious note, I seem to recall a discussion at a recent local safety seminar where it was stated that simultaneous opposing-runway approaches aren't allowed anymore per ATC procedures (at least at the towered airports). This doesn't mean conflicts don't still come up - at Danbury, many times the jets and turboprops will be landing on one runway, while all other traffic is landing on another (sometimes the opposing runway). We all (or most) seem to get along anyway, even when go-arounds are necessary.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 21, 2014 12:57 PM    Report this comment

Love the story. Your LSA buddy would go bonkers at our airport. The Ag airplanes will land in any direction that will get them to the tanks as quickly as possible. And heavens, they don't use radios! When first started flying out of this airport, I was talking with a group pilots and mentioned the fact that the Ag pilots didn't make announcements when arriving or departing the airport. One of the gentleman, who I had not met, turned to me and said "that's because I don't have a radio and won't get one either. I'm flying close to the ground don't need the distraction of listening to people telling us their life's story ten miles out from the airport". He and I are often flying at the same time, in the evening when the wind has died down. See and avoid...

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | November 22, 2014 8:47 PM    Report this comment

Dana - LOL on ag flyers.

I had never been around, nor heard about the tendencies of ag flyers to ignore both the wind, the radio, and other pilots until an experience fairly early in my flying career. I had just bought a Cherokee in north Georgia, at a time when I had less than 100 hours time in my logbook, and the next morning I took off to ferry my new bird solo on a 1,500 nm trip to its new home base in New Mexico. I "wisely" selected a small airport in Indianola, Mississippi for my first fuel stop, selected due to its low published avgas price. It was, of course, home to a cropduster operation.

No problems during my arrival; I gassed up, checked the wind direction, taxied to the "correct" end of the single runway, and I made the appropriate calls on the CTAF regarding my intentions. I noted that the cropduster operation was located at the opposite end of the runway. After my radio call, I began my takeoff roll, and as I picked up speed I noticed that the ag plane was taxiing onto the opposite end of the runway, thinking "he'll wait for me to finish my takeoff before he starts his".


The ag plane had started his takeoff role by the time I hit rotation speed, and as I climbed into the air above ground effect I saw that he was also in the air, headed right for me! Holy moly! I knew that flight rules called for aircraft converging head on to pass each other to their respective right, and I was just about to begin a rapid bank to the right maybe 30-40 feet in the air. Except that I noticed that, nope, the ag pilot was banking to his left!

With no time to think about anything, I made an abrupt left bank too, and we quickly passed each other on opposite sides of the runway maybe 50 feet apart!

I didn't know if the ag pilot was NORDO (the ag pilots at my current home airport in Florida certainly do use their radios), but I never heard him on the CTAF, Or perhaps he was merely being stubborn and was not about to give way to a stranger at "his" airport (most likely the latter).

Posted by: Duane Truitt | November 26, 2014 8:20 AM    Report this comment

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