Mistakes Were Made

Always record your mistakes.There are a few good reasons, but the primary one for me is that it might keep me from making the same one again. If I only make each mistake once, then I think I can make it to the end of my flying career without hurting anyone or getting hurt. (There’s also the chance someone else can learn from one of my mistakes which one be awesome. If I can save them from making one, we’ll all be flying a little safer. I think there’s an old saw about, “Learn from other people’s mistakes, you don’t have time to make them all yourself.”) Mistakes are also when I make new rules for my piloting habits, like the Three New Rules for Landing at Night.

I now have over four hundred hours in N972RD. I am just starting to get comfortable enough to do a short approach or short field takeoff. If The Killing Zone applies to each aircraft type separately, or even to each aircraft separately, I have now escaped it flying the DA42.

Arriving at an airport, new to me or one I’ve landed at hundreds of times, I brief the approach. Even if it is a visual approach into the pattern. When I have passengers this briefing happens in my head, but it follows the same pattern. I listen to the ATIS for the airport and they tell me runway that is active. “Caldwell Automated Terminal Information Bravo…. (weather information) … landing and departing runway four and runway two eight.”

When I am switched over to the tower or the CTAF frequency I listen to confirm what will be happening. So I may hear an airplane ahead of me: “Caldwell tower, Angel Flight one nine seven six I inbound with bravo, nine miles north descending through two thousand nine hundred.” And the tower responds, “Angel Flight seven six, make right traffic runway four.” I am still ten miles behind that Cessna that called in, so I look at the runway diagram for the airport. 

Runways are label with compass headings, rounded to the nearest ten degrees. When I brief a landing, I set the heading bug (a little blue notch that I can set to a heading on my Horizontal Situation Indicator, HSI).  Now I know that when I am lined up to land, the airplane should be pointed toward that heading bug. If it isn’t, then I am not lined up for the correct runway. (This habit would have saved a few lives, particularly in this accident.) It also means that to fly downwind parallel to the runway I just put the heading bug at the bottom of the HSI, I don’t need to worry about working out my reciprocal heading. (The reciprocal heading is when the plane is flying away from the heading. So add 180 degrees. Unless you are more than 180 degrees, in which case you should subtract one hundred eighty degrees. Of course, that’s a little difficult in your head, so add 200 and take away 20. Anyway, you don’t need to do that. If you did, you could look at the runway number for the other end of the runway, which is also 180 degrees opposite, since runways are straight lines. But I don’t bother with any of that, I just plop the heading bug on the HSI, turn the airplane until it is at the bottom of the HSI, and I’m flying a nice downwind. (Yes, there are corrections for crosswinds that mess this up a little, but the wind was calm. I figured the calm wind was why they were landing both runway 4 and the two-something runway.)

So I call in to the tower, tell them who I am, where I am, that I have the latest weather information for the airport and I’d like to land. The tower tells me to enter a right downwind for runway four, which I am already lined up to do. The airport is busy, which always keeps me on my toes a little more. Coming in to land is when I am paying sharp attention anyway, but it means I’m sort of spring-loaded to act. Sure enough, when I am still two miles from the upwind end of runway four I hear the departing turbine plane say there’s a drone at 700 feet a little south of the upwind. So I start looking as well, since my downwind path will take me on the other side of that drone.

Just as I am entering the upper right corner of that diagram, the tower says, “Two Romeo Delta, can you accept runway two eight for landing?” I don’t think about the number, I just say, “Affirmative” as I put the plane into a tight right bank, dropping the nose, adding more flaps to slow us down so that I can land on the opposite end of runway 4. I scoot by an airborne object that looks a lot more like a group of party balloons than a drone. Nell asked, “Why did he want you to change runways all of a sudden?” I said I wasn’t sure, but that I am always happy to help. “Well, at least you got to do that cool turn.” I agree and tell the tower that the drone looks like balloons to me. I pull the nose up, I’ve chopped the power, and we cross the fence just at the right speed, wheels down and we’re off the runway. As we taxi along papa, I see a Pilatus PC-12 land on runway 4 and pull off onto a taxiway to feed in behind me. Ground says the tower would like to talk about the drone object if I could give the tower a call.

I did all of the unpacking of the plane, dealing with the line crew and FBO’s front desk, got the plane all buttoned up and then called the tower. “Two Romeo Delta, we’re not writing anything down, but we cleared you to land two eight and you landed two two. Nothing bad happened, but the reason we switched you was that we had a plane landing runway 4. They didn’t have to go around, so there was no problem, but you accepted two eight and then landed two two.”

They might not be writing anything down, but I sure am. I filed my NASA form just in case ATC changes their mind and submits a report. A number of factors affected my landing on the wrong runway. If the controller had directed me to “turn left to enter a left downwind for runway 28” then I would have know what he was trying to do. In fact, the moment I dropped my right wing for the big s-turn I am not sure why he didn’t say, “Two Romeo Delta, where are you going?”

But I have now added to my briefing as I approach the airport. I know which runway I am landing on, but I will actually look at and say the name of all of the runways. That way I would have said, “I’m landing runway 4, the other end of it is two two. There is also runway two eight and runway one zero.” That would have made it much harder to make the mistake.

Fewer mistakes. The constant goal.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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2 Responses to Mistakes Were Made

  1. Chris says:

    Did the Tower also talk to you about the drone, or did Ground flat out bait-and-switch you? That seemed like a bit of sucker punch to me.

    I can only imagine how it felt to receive the news from Tower that you’d landed on the wrong runway. I know that I felt a chill spread through the pit of my stomach just reading your account and I wasn’t even there.

    I could not help but flash back to my experience this summer when I lined up on the wrong runway at Burlington. Fortunately for me, Tower noticed well before I entered the pattern and simply changed my landing clearance. As you noted, I’m surprised that they didn’t check with you when you lined up on 22. I’m grateful when checks-and-balances work, but this example is one of many out there demonstrating that we cannot depend on them.

    Welcome to New Jersey, Colin!

    • Already departed NJ.

      It wasn’t a bait and switch, they definitely wanted to hear more about the balloon object.

      I’ve been told by people based at the field that KCDW seems to be a lot of trainee controllers. That certainly seemed to be the case here, but I was the one that landed on the wrong runway.

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