No question about it—the exponential expansion of aviation technology in the last dozen years has been nothing short of amazing. If anyone had suggested at the beginning of the 1990s that avionics manufacturers would be offering dual GPS and multi-function displays in practically every new airplane by 2004, most of us would have laughed and said, “Yeah, right.”
Yet, today, we have a plethora of high-tech equipment that can make mastering the avionics panel far more challenging than flying the airplane itself. The new wave of avionics demands much more than an hour’s training. All this electronic wizardry sometimes can distract us from the primary job—flying the airplane.
Case in point, a recent weekend hamburger flight in Southern California. I was flying my Mooney with Gary Halopoff, a good friend, fellow pilot and one of the best studio-recording trumpet players in Los Angeles, in the right seat. We were returning to Fullerton Airport after a quick lunch at French Valley, 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
It was a busy Friday afternoon in the Los Angeles area, hazy but acceptable VFR, and traffic was everywhere, much of it doing the same thing we were. I was grateful to have a Garmin 330 mode-S transponder uplinking traffic information to the airplane’s Garmin 430 map screen, providing a continuous readout of the positions of all transponder-equipped aircraft in my area.
Passing Corona Airport at 2,500 feet, the warnings became more frequent. The elegant, female, British voice on the uplink was alerting us about traffic every minute or so, and we strained our eyes to spot the opposing airplanes. They went zipping by, and we saw probably two-thirds of them, fortunately, none closer than about a mile.
I dialed the ATIS and localizer frequencies for Fullerton, interrogated the 430 for the tower frequency and dialed it in. The uplink alerted again, and we stared off into the murk, trying to locate the conflicting aircraft.
When he had passed behind us, I traded frequencies, punched the push-to-talk and said, “Fullerton, Mooney 3274 Bravo is nine east with foxtrot tracking the approach. We’d like a straight-in if we could get it.”
The tower came back almost immediately with, “Roger, 74 Bravo. Cleared straight to runway 21. Report the twin high-rise.”
Huh? That sounded vaguely familiar, but it didn’t ring true. I had flown the localizer into Fullerton many times, most often in IFR conditions, but I wasn’t aware there was a twin high-rise on the localizer approach. Oh well, I figured I’d just call at three miles if I didn’t spot the buildings. Still, something didn’t seem right.
As we closed with the airport, we were surprised that no one else seemed to be in the pattern. Gary spotted two large apartment buildings below, not exactly high-rises, but perhaps it was what the controller was referring to. “Tower, Mooney 74 Bravo is at the twins,” I said.
“ Roger, 74 Bravo. Is your transponder on? We’re not receiving a return,” said the controller.
I checked the face of the 330, and everything appeared normal. I said, “74 Bravo is three miles out, squawking 1200. Transponder appears normal.” I could see the runway straight ahead.
“Still no transponder, 74 Bravo,” said the controller. “Are you tracking the VOR approach inbound?”
Uh-oh, I thought. Fullerton has no straight-in VOR approach.
The controller and I realized what was happening at the same time. The controller asked, “74 Bravo, are you inbound for Santa Monica Airport?”
“ Negative, Santa Monica, we’re approaching Fullerton,” I admitted. “Sorry for the confusion. We’ll break off and see if we can get it right this time.”
“ Mooney 74 Bravo, say again. You’re breaking up, almost unreadable,” replied the controller. That figures, I thought, since I’m at least 25 miles from Santa Monica and only about 1,200 feet up.
“ Santa Monica, Mooney 74 Bravo. Sorry about that. I just dropped the ball today. We’re obviously on the wrong frequency,” I said sheepishly.
Fortunately, I was still two miles out from Fullerton when I terminated the approach, made a hard left 180, flew a long downwind and double-checked the frequency. Sure enough, I had listened to the proper ATIS, was headed for the correct airport and tracking the proper localizer, but I was talking to the wrong tower. I had mistakenly tuned Santa Monica’s tower frequency, 120.1, while Fullerton is on 119.1.
I called Fullerton, using the proper frequency this time, ’fessed up to my stupidity, and they obligingly allowed me to land anyway. Apparently, the Fullerton controller recognized my “Boy, am I dumb” tone of voice and didn’t ask me to call a number.
I have no defense. Although the first controller never said Santa Monica until the end of the incident, and he apparently either didn’t hear or didn’t notice my reference to Fullerton, I was the idiot who had missed all the obvious cues. I found out later that both airports were offering information foxtrot on their respective ATIS at about the same time. I had listened to the proper ATIS, but Fullerton has no runway 21, and if I had referenced the Fullerton approach plate, I would have noticed it. Alternately, I should have noted that I was heading straight into runway 21 on a heading of roughly 240 degrees without any crosswind. That should have set off an alarm.
The tower frequencies are similar, and one more click on the big knob would have put me on the proper button. For better or worse, the Los Angeles Basin is fairly flat, so you can easily talk to either tower from 2,000 feet or above, even from 25 miles away.
Both of the controllers were understanding and sympathetic toward me, perhaps more than I deserved. I can’t blame the radios. It was a simple case of operator error, fortunately, an error that was corrected before there was any conflict. Apparently, 40 years of flying and 14,000 hours don’t insulate a pilot from making a basic mistake.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].