Pushing the Margins

Me, my wife, and our dog Jedi were sitting out at the airport in her Ford Explorer and eating a Chick Fil A supper while listening to the CTAF and watching whoever happened to be in the traffic pattern. That evening, there was a rather unique warbird working the pattern. It was all alone until a green and white Citabria entered the downwind midfield in front of it. The Citabria touched down, turned off mid-field, crossed the hold short, and turned to taxi down the parallel taxiway. The warbird pressed down final with its landing light on, suddenly sidestepping to the right of the runway and leveled off at about fifty feet. It roared past a hangar at just above rooftop level and then cut back toward the taxiing Citabira which was turning into the fuel pumps. While it wasn’t clear whether the warbird pilot was saying “hello” to someone he knew or whether he was showing his irritation at the Citabria pulling into downwind in front of him, it was the most dangerous and immature display of airmanship I have ever seen out there, and that’s saying something.

About a month later, we were out there holding another fast food soiree as we watched a Maule angle itself across the taxiway leading out of the hangar area, and the pilot got out. A Cessna 172 taxied over to it, nose to nose, and a young man and woman got out to be arranged by a female photographer who started shooting pictures. It looked to us like an engagement or wedding photoshoot in which the groom, bride, and probable best man were all or mostly pilots. When it was done, the Cessna taxied off while the Maule started up, taxied the short distance to the runway, and took off mid-field. The Maule rolled a couple of hundred feet, broke ground and then performed a hard right turn which took it directly over aircraft, buildings, and us at about 100 feet altitude.

As pilots, we get a bit complacent about altitude restrictions and flying safe altitudes at small airports because we are landing an taking off where our proximity to the ground and facilities is a fact of life. But in both those incidents, the pilots involved were acting without regard to the safety of others in the name of convenience, testosterone, or both. It’s easy to think that the restrictions within FAR 91.119 don’t apply; but there is nothing in the regulation that exempts operations at airports. My bet is if either one of the unsafe operations we observed had resulted in an accident, violations of parts of that regulation would have been used in the administrative actions and lawsuits that would have followed, assuming the pilots survived.

An area where the regulations are not so crisp has to do with what constitutes a ‘safe” distance on the runway between aircraft when approaching to land. Where I see issues surrounding this come into play the most are at non-towered field patterns and runways. While good practice dictates a go-around if another airplane is on the runway, there is nothing in the regulations that requires it. This too often results in impatient or impetuous pilots pressing their margins when another aircraft enters the pattern ahead of them or they have to land behind another aircraft whose approach speed is slower. An aircraft on a 60 knot approach is moving at 101 feet per second. If you assume a stopped obstacle and you’re 500 feet behind it, you have 5 seconds to react, brake, and stop. Even a 1000 foot margin gives you only 10 seconds to get her done. Grass or soft runways may help or hurt by either helping the airplane stop or preventing any braking from being effective, respectively. Many times, you make the decision to continue based on what you believe the pilot in front of you intends to do; but he/she can change his/her mind or have to deal with something unanticipated, regardless of where you are. The pilot in front of you only has to fly their airplane; as the following pilot, you are totally responsible for where your airplane is and what it’s doing, even if the pilot in front of you doesn’t do what’s anticipated. A radio call only announces a pilot’s intentions and doesn’t guarantee you anything. So, there’s good reason for going around when anyone is on the runway as you approach touchdown at a non-towered field.

Believing your expertise will keep you safe while pushing your margins will generally require you, at one time or another, to prove it. And if you’re lucky, someone will post a cell phone video of your performance on Facebook, You Tube, or Twitter, and it will go viral while escaping the attention of the FAA.