"Baron Zero-Two-Foxtrot, the biplane ahead of you is in the pattern and will be turning on crosswind shortly. Turn inside and above him,” said the tower at SDL Airport in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Pitts Papa-Bravo, when you turn, you’ll see a Baron inside your turn and above you, but he should be no factor.”
No biggie. I was on an extended upwind, a common procedure in which the tower lets me extend to give me space from slower traffic ahead on downwind. That way, I don’t have to make my landing approach any longer than necessary. I prefer flying short approaches, which the tower appreciates. Over the years, we’ve come to know what works for each other. I rolled into a crosswind and immediately heard the Baron pilot behind me yell, “Hey, he’s turning.” Well, duh!
I got an eyeball toward the runway and saw the Baron at my altitude, violently reversing his turn, which would have taken him right into my path. It wasn’t even close to being a near-miss, and I had plenty of room to do my typical yank-and-bank moves, should they be needed, but he wasn’t being as cool about it. As I passed him going the other direction, he came up on tower frequency and barked, “Idiot!”
First, I should tell you that SDL is supposedly the second busiest single-runway airport in the country. If you eliminate the helicopter traffic at the number-one airport located in Carlsbad, Calif., then SDL is the busiest in fixed-wing traffic. It’s a constant challenge to keep the dance going without bumping into one another. The others on the dance floor range from Cubs to Gulfstreams, and there are lots of each. It’s actually fun, primarily because the tower crew is so awesomely good at what they do. At least it’s fun until someone lets his self-importance show and feels it necessary to tell the world that he has been inconvenienced and doesn’t like it.
I never, as in never, retort on tower frequency. It’s not the professional thing to do. But then, it’s not that often someone calls me an idiot for something they screwed up.
I felt my face flush, a good trick in an open cockpit, and heard a voice that sounded a lot like mine say, “Who is the idiot?! You’re the one who didn’t follow tower instructions!”
Eventually, the Baron and the biplane went their separate ways, both pilots feeling as if they had put the other in his place. Or something like that. Afterward, I felt a little foolish about the whole thing. There was no excuse to engage in schoolyard rhetoric (“You did!” “No, I didn’t!” “You did so!”). At the time, however, I have to admit that it felt good, and I flashed onto the problem a lot of cities have with road rage. The papers often have stories of enraged drivers pulling out a gun and shooting someone who has cut them off or otherwise insulted their motorized manhood (why is it we never hear of women doing that?). Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t have machine guns mounted on airplanes. I do have to admit that if I had a Lewis gun on the top wing or a Browning in the nose, I’d develop a definite itchy trigger finger that could easily accommodate several B-52s when following someone out on a pattern. But it is what it is, and the best plan is to just go with the flow. (Yeah, dude, I came of age in the 1960s. How did you know?)
One of life’s givens is that brown stuff happens. It just happens. Any airport with more than two airplanes in residence is going to have people getting in each other’s way. Even if every airplane on the airport is a C-172, the usual differences in speed (slow) and pattern size (too big) don’t exist. You’d still have someone cutting the other off or other-wise committing gross acts of aerial discourtesy. It just happens, and it’s not important who did what, as long as no paint was exchanged. There is no place in aviation for finger pointing, yelling and screaming or other wonderfully felt, but thoroughly counter-productive, emotional displays.
Granted, there are some times when, in the interest of safety, a cordial conversation may be in order. It should be noted, however, that cordial conversations normally don’t start with the word “idiot.”
It’s tempting to say that we’re all fellow aviators, each of us blessed beyond measure in being allowed to sample the complex joys of flight, and we should cherish the brotherhood we share—or some similar B.S. Hallmark sentiment like that. I should admit that it’s a good thing that my intercom comments about the inconsiderate jerk in the C-152 that’s flying a four-mile final ahead of me didn’t go out over the air. “Idiot” was one of the kinder descriptive phrases that was used. Again, however, it is what it is, and I’m not about to take my frustrations out on what’s probably a student pilot who is trying his best. In fact, I won’t do anything more drastic than asking the tower for a 360 on downwind for spacing.
In a lot of ways, the Baron pilot and his smart mouth did me a favor. By acting as if two motors trump two wings and trying to verbally establish a hierarchy where none exists, he reminded me that even though some little guy in front of me is causing me an enormous amount of heartburn, I’m probably doing the same to someone behind me. In the big scheme of things, it’s really no big deal, and I truly would be an idiot if I got on the radio and made it into one.
Still, you don’t suppose they’d mind if I shot down just one airplane that was lollygagging around out there on a long final, do you? Just one, that’s all I ask. I’ll even make it a little one.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.