Aviation Safety Letter 4/2004

To the Letter — Near Miss at Uncontrolled Airport

Dear Editor,

I am writing to you about an incident that occurred a few weeks after my commercial flight test, in hopes that it will help prevent similar situations from happening. A recently-licensed private pilot asked me to accompany him on a cross-country flight to Powell River, B.C., from Langley, B.C. The pilot, fresh out of training, flew to near perfection and handled the radio communications well. We switched to Powell River aerodrome traffic frequency as soon as we were released from terminal. There was no traffic on the frequency. We made the required call 5 min back, circled overhead 500 ft above the circuit to check the winds, and then descended on the upwind side to join the circuit via midfield downwind while making the appropriate radio calls in accordance with the A.I.P. Canada (AIP) RAC 4.5.

We were turning for final when we received a radio call from a helicopter that stated he was 1 mi. to the northeast, straight-in for the airport. This would put him at our two o'clock on the upwind side at an unknown altitude. This was his first and only call that we heard in our 15 min of monitoring the frequency. We did not spot him, so I decided to make an extra radio call to let him know where we were and that we could not see him. We got no reply. I frantically scanned the sky and finally, when we were about 200 ft on final, I spotted him. He was on our right side on an angled straight-in, about 30° off the runway centerline. He was at about the same altitude, skimming over the treetops, and we were about to collide. This necessitated a dangerous collision avoidance turn on our part. This evasive action at an already slow speed and low altitude caused us to come close to a stall above the trees along the side of the approach path. We recovered from this very unnerving manoeuvre, completed another circuit and landed safely.

Afterwards, the helicopter pilot came over to us and apologized for the near collision. He told us that during his entire approach he didn't see us at all, and was not paying attention to the radio. I asked him, "Do helicopters have to follow the standard procedures for uncontrolled airports?" He replied, "We are supposed to, but I only do it if there is traffic." I suggested to him to read the AIP and study the uncontrolled airport procedures. Had he used the proper procedures, this situation would never have happened. We would have spotted each other much sooner and communicated to resolve any conflicts.

What made me upset about this situation was that this helicopter pilot decided not to follow the rules and regulations set out in the AIP and the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs), just to save a few bucks on fuel. What he did not realize was that his actions jeopardized the safety of both of our aircraft and all of the occupants. These regulations were set up to standardize arrival and departure procedures at uncontrolled airports, to ease the task of maintaining separation and traffic spotting. If we were to all join the circuit in any way, without communicating our intentions, chaos would ensue.

Flying at controlled airports with the luxury for ATC only causes us to forget skills required for uncontrolled airports. I have even flown with instructors who did not know the procedures for uncontrolled airports very well. We must all take the time to regularly study and review the procedures found in the AIP, the CARs and the Canada Flight Supplement (CFS), and follow them. Personal and disciplined recurrent training will help eliminate situations such as our near miss near Powell River.

Jason Wannamaker
Calgary, Alta.

Dear Jason,

Unfortunately your incident is one of many which occur on a regular basis near our uncontrolled airports. The "big sky-small aircraft" principle has saved many pilots through luck — but others weren't so lucky. Many near misses and close calls never get reported. Hopefully your account will once again remind all of us of the importance to know our procedures well, and apply them in all cases. — Ed

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