Tailwheeler’s Journal #3
I wish so many lessons wouldn’t come to us from the glider community, but that’s the way it’s going right now.
There was a midair a while back in Middletown, California. The result was the tragic loss of both a glider pilot and tow plane pilot. All the facts are not in and it’s possible that I’m inferring things that didn’t actually happen but it won’t hurt to learn from what APPEARS to have happened.
Evidently the glider was towed up, release was normal and the towplane returned to the field. The tow plane entered the left downwind, probably assuming that he was the only one in the pattern. Meanwhile, the glider pilot had been unable to find any lift on this blustery day and had also returned to the airport but chose to enter a RIGHT downwind. It appears that they collided either while both on opposite base legs or after turning final. On page 23 of Brian’s Flying Book, I recounted an incident where I had experienced a “near miss” while on base leg at a fly-in. There are a couple of closely related lessons to be learned here. I was on left base, the standard pattern direction at that airport. Evidently the Pawnee pilot in the referenced accident was also on a standard, left hand base. The glider in the incident was on a RIGHT base. Not necessarily a bad thing depending on the circumstances, but not the standard direction for that runway. It has to be assumed that they met because they didn’t see each other. No one seems to know if the radio was being used or whether its use or misuse was a factor. The lessons, as I see it are: 1, Don’t assume that everyone is using the approved pattern for the runway you’re using and, 2. Never stop looking for other traffic by imagining where they MIGHT be. Before, during and after turning base, look up the extended centerline for the guy on long final and look for a guy who might be on the opposite base from you. That was the guy I narrowly missed and, to be honest, I wasn’t looking for him. I saw him simply through normal, accidental spotting of motion or an object. At that time I didn’t have the habit of looking for a plane on opposite base. I do now and, after the Middletown accident, I REALLY do. I hope you will too.
This accident also calls attention to the issue of tow plane and glider collision avoidance procedures. We actively address this issue at Sunriver Soaring but I won’t address it in the Tailwheelers’ Journal.
I want to stress that my description of the wreck concerned is based on my own assumptions of what happened. The NTSB may very well draw different conclusions. Also, and possibly more important, is the fact that the two pilots involved were experienced, well trained and proficient at their respective tasks. This is what we call “Snake Bite”. It can happen to anyone, regardless of their skill, experience or training. All that is required is ONE mistake, often in the form of relaxation of attentiveness. I hope you will learn from this. I know I will.