Monday, August 9, 2010
Near Miss in the Box
I see an incident at AWAC 2010 has created questions and rumors. Just to clarify, here is what happened. At AWAC the radio is to be kept only on “listening” by us pilots. Nobody was to ever talk on it except for emergencies. Release into the box is provided by starters with flags. The procedure is for the starter to write the pilot number that we all have been assigned randomly, start, taxi to the flagger who has a red flag. After he changes to a white flag we can takeoff. In this incident, after the starter wrote my number I taxied up short of runway 07 where the flagman raised the red flag. I did my run-up and saw the French yellow CAP flying in the box overhead. After a while the flagger showed the white flag. I looked at the box and did not see an airplane. I took off and turned right downwind as briefed and checked the box again visually. Polish talk on the radio, I had no idea what they were saying but since we had that chatter also the day before and other pilots had complained about it I interpreted it as a nuisance. All official communications were to be in English.
I dove in for a CIVA warm-up/safety figure. After a half roll I saw a big yellow flash on my right in opposite direction. It was the French CAP probably 2-3 wingspans away diving in from the south. He passed behind me. Trying to keep track of him I pulled vertical. He continued to do aerobatics. I heard then for the first time the call of the Chief Judge for 2 airplanes in the box. I kept the CAP in sight behind my left shoulder and sort of hammered-rolled out to the north. I circled to land on the briefed pattern. The CAP landed shortly thereafter.
Apparently the CAP pilot took a break that may have been misinterpreted by the flagger as the end of the sequence. My visual-box-check just happen to occur when the other airplane was out of the box to the south after his interruption. The radio calls from the Chief's table on my entrance to the box obviously were blanketed by the polish transmissions. The Chief Judge had no direct communication with the flagger, which of course allowed this incident to develop.
After the landing I got "a lesson" from the French manager that I did not appreciate too much. Of course he assumed it was my entire fault. I had to use a lot of self-control.
The Chief Judge came to the hangar and formally apologized to me for the mistakes that could have killed 2 pilots. He was very gracious and acknowledged I was not at any fault.
Due to this and a big thunderstorm over the field the flying stopped that afternoon. The flagging and box entry procedure were reviewed and changed, with clarification of the flag signals, direct control of the flagger by the Chief Judge and requirement of positive 2-way radio communication airplane-Chief Judge on a new silent frequency within 1 minute of departure. The Chief Judge now clears the pilot by radio into the box.
I was very lucky. I am also very lucky to be in a team as supportive and cohesive as this. Interestingly enough, after about my 4th try to fly the Q (weather postponements) I finally did fly, but not until I had to hold in the air because an airplane was in the box (again!)