Reading the title of this column, you probably think the topic is about weather and scud-running…and you’d be wrong (mostly). As we leave winter behind, I think it’s time to get brutally honest and talk about arrivals at fly-ins, both big and small. As anyone who attended AirVenture 2018 in their own airplane can attest, things are getting a bit dicey out there when we mix it up with a few thousand of our fellow aviation brethren, and something has to be done about it.
Sure, we all want to join the thousands of airplanes parked at AirVenture this year, but it’s better to be safe and sound elsewhere if things get dicey. (Photo: Louise Hose)
Whether you are flying into Sun ‘n Fun or AirVenture, you have to recognize that there are arrival procedures for each. These procedures, usually issued as a NOTAM, are designed to get everyone following a common set of rules so that all of the pilots in the vicinity have some idea where others might be and what they might be doing. In addition, many mid-sized events have special arrival procedures that, if not actually NOTAM’ed, are still intended to sort out airplanes into a predictable buzz of aircraft arriving and departing to minimize the potential for close calls—or worse.
Well, you’re thinking, this is all pretty obvious, isn’t it? Of course there are event NOTAMS. But I’m bringing it up because obviously—based on recent evidence—there is a fairly significant part of the population that doesn’t seem to know it. I have been flying into AirVenture for quite a few years now, and I have noted a definite trend toward more discussions on the radio in which ATC has to inform a wayward pilot to follow the NOTAM procedure, and the pilot seems blissfully unaware that such a thing exists. Each year, there seem to be more pilots wandering around mucking things up and creating the pure havoc that was the arrival to AirVenture last year—at least if you tried to get in Saturday or Sunday.
“We have met the enemy, and he is us!” proclaimed the great comic strip philosopher Pogo, and I am sad to say, no better phrase defines what is happening among those of us that live and love to aviate. Yes, the Oshkosh Arrival procedures were stretched to their limits last year by a number of factors that combined to prove that the concept of the Error Chain really does exist. Poor weather, some new ATC procedures, and some rescheduling of mass arrivals all combined to bring the area within 50 miles of Wittman Field to a near boil. It was what happened next that blew the lid off and sent hot water in all directions.
What happened was, simply put, the aeronautical equivalent of road rage. Pilots decided that if ATC was going to give them procedures they had never heard of, they could just go ahead and make things up themselves. Instead of a single-file line over the railroad tracks between Ripon and Fiske, there were four or five airplanes flying abreast, all trying to converge on one point (FISKE) where nothing good was going to happen. Out over the holding lakes, it sounded like the dogfight of all dogfights, with airplanes going both clockwise and counterclockwise, at different speeds and different altitudes.
Some clever pilot thought up the idea that if they declared an emergency, they would get preferential treatment (because that’s the rule), and sure enough, they were directed to head into Oshkosh while others were turned away in order to deal with the emergency pilot’s “shortage of fuel,” or a passenger who was turning green. Forget the fact that there are numerous airports very close to the inbound course where such emergencies can be handled more quickly—dang it, these folks were going to Oshkosh, and no one was going to get in their way!
Quite frankly, as much as I love seeing everyone in the aviation community show up at Oshkosh, and as an involved member of EAA, I simply don’t need to see people like this at the show. Sure, it’s the aviation equivalent of Mecca, and sure, you’ve spent a year planning on bringing your new homebuilt to show it off—but putting yourself, your passengers, and others at risk to do so simply doesn’t make sense for anyone. As pilots, it is time we stop blaming others for the mess that gets created when too many people try to freelance their way into the busiest airport in the world, and simply say “Enough!” We need to let each other know that you either play by the rules, or you don’t get to play.
I listened to a lot of war stories around the campfire last year of pilots telling their arrival tale of horror. Sadly, I can’t tell you how many times it came down to something that “other people” (other pilots and ATC) did to create the mess. But when I asked the teller of the tale why they simply didn’t go land at Wautoma until the chaos subsided, they looked at me like “but, it’s my right to land at Oshkosh!”
Friends, we need to put a stop to that attitude right now. We need to decide that if we put others at risk, along with ourselves, we have done something unacceptable. We are responsible for the chaos that we leave in our wake. At the time of this writing, I have not yet seen the new and improved Oshkosh arrival NOTAM that we’ll fly under this year. But I can tell you that if we don’t hold each other accountable for following the procedure, than any amount of work done by organizers and the FAA to make things better will go for naught. It is up to pilots to make the situation safe—even if that means we turn away from our goal of landing on the green dot in front of half a million aviation enthusiasts. As important as AirVenture is to all of us, it is not important enough to kill yourself, your passengers, or some unsuspecting soul who trusted you to follow the rules when your goal was to arrive at the show at any cost. If that’s your attitude, then I’d rather be someplace else.
If things aren’t going well on the arrival, go find someplace to land and wait it out. The mess will subside, the weather will be better, you might make some new friends at a satellite airport, and then you can join the show the next day. Flexibility is important whenever we fly our personal aircraft—why shouldn’t that be doubly true at the biggest assemblage of experimental aircraft on the planet?