Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. Determining a close call can be quite subjective but for our purposes here a close call will be any situation where a pilot suddenly finds themselves in a potentially dangerous situation quite unexpectedly.
This month’s Close Call comes from our Facebook group. Our pilot was working on their private pilot license doing her second solo in the circuit (traffic pattern). Just before going up that day our pilot’s instructor advised her of another student in the circuit with his instructor practicing their touch and go's. The other student was fairly new and had not yet worked on the radio so his instructor managed his communications for him. In the tower that day was a very friendly and somewhat casual controller that used simplistic language presumably to help ease the other student into the aviation vernacular.
A few circuits in, our pilot was nearing pattern altitude and about to turn downwind when ATC advises "Alpha Bravo Charlie, traffic at your 12 o’clock, a Cessna 150" but no mention of altitude. Without an eye on the traffic our pilot responds "Alpha Bravo Charlie is looking". A few seconds later and still looking, ATC calls sounding a little nervous "Do you have the traffic? Very close at your 12!"- "Negative, I DO NOT have the traffic" she replies. As she’s about to ask about the target’s position and altitude ATC emphatically demands "ALPHA BRAVO CHARLIE SQUAWK IDENT!"
To add to the confusion, our pilot learned later that when she was instructed by the tower to squawk Ident, both her and the other aircraft did just that at the same time! ATC repeated the Ident instruction three times specifying our pilot’s call sign and all three times both aircraft “lit up like crazy on radar and there was no telling who was who”.
Our pilot begins to wonder why she couldn't see the traffic. It was a very clear day and from the sounds of it they were very close by. Thinking she was at fault and wondering how to get out of this without getting killed, our pilot remembers her instructor mentioning that in cases like this to descend about a hundred feet to make it easier to see without the horizon adding confusion. Just as she was preparing to descend our pilot took another quick look and finally spotted the other 150 peeling to right base about 30 feet below. “Had I pulled the power at that time we would have collided” she reflects.
“When I finally had the traffic I distanced myself, landed, and called it a day. After that, I decided I would wait for the other student and instructor in the lobby so I could talk to them and go over the mistakes of the events as for it not to happen again. It gave me time to think, why was he squawking when he wasn't being spoken to? Why didn't his instructor stop him? Why were they below circuit height? Why didn't ATC give me their altitude? Why did ATC wait until the last minute to tell me about the traffic? And why didn't I see the traffic earlier?”
“They finally landed and I approached the instructor by letting him know that I was the other 150 in the circuit. He explained that his student kept on squawking and he didn't have the time to stop him or let him know what was going on because they were practicing forced approaches (which explained the altitude they were flying at). Not knowing the gravity of the situation, he let out a little laugh until I cut him off with the facts of how close we were. I figured out that I didn't see the traffic because I was in a climb attitude when ATC told me about the traffic. By the time I leveled off to take a look they were already right below me.”
Our pilot concludes “This just goes to show that even instructors can get complacent. It doesn't matter how confident you are in a plane, if there is an alarming situation developing, don't leave it up to the other aircraft to figure it out because that might get you killed.”