In last month’s column, I described a very-near collision I witnessed on the runway of a non-towered airport. The pilot of a turboprop twin, obtaining his IFR release on an 1,100-overcast day, apparently not monitoring, and certainly not transmitting on, the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency), pulled out in front of a Cessna Citation that was on short final. The Citation pilot executed a go-around, side-stepping left to avoid the climbing Piaggio Avanti, then flew a left-hand pattern to return and land uneventfully. Although most of the blame for the near-collision – if indeed blame is affixed – goes to the pilot of the Avanti for not determining the way was clear before taxiing onto the runway, the Citation pilot may have made some mistakes too.
Let’s look at this event – realizing that this is very speculative – from the cockpit of the Citation. The pilot (or crew; we’ll use the singular) flew the Runway 18 instrument approach (ILS or RNAV/GPS, it doesn’t matter) and broke out of the 1,100-foot ceiling a few miles from the airport. Wichita/Colonel James Jabara Airport (figure 1), where this event took place, has a 1,420-foot field elevation. This means the cloud bases (verified by several pilot reports, including mine when my student and I departed shortly afterward) were at about 2,500 feet MSL. On the ILS glideslope/LPV glidepath, this put the Citation about 1/3 of the way from the Final Approach Fix (FAF) to the Missed Approach Point (MAP) … roughly three and a half miles from the airport when it broke out. Notably, the first I heard from the Citation on CTAF was when its pilot reported “four miles out,” and I saw the jet’s landing lights shortly afterward.
Now, take a look at the airspace the Citation was in at the time. Figure 1 is a segment of the Sectional chart. Jabara (KAAO) is depicted by the upper-left magenta airport symbol. What type of airspace was the Citation in at approximately 1,100 AGL, roughly three miles from the airport?
The Citation was in Class E airspace. Class E airspace can begin at the surface, at 700 AGL, at 1,200 AGL, at 14,500 MSL, or at any different altitude where charted. Now look at Figure 2, highlighting the depictions of airspace around other airports in the area. See Augusta (3AU) and El Dorado (KEQA), and contrast them with Jabara (KAAO). The arrows point at key features of these airspace depictions. What is the major difference?
The red dashed ring around Jabara Airport signifies that Class E airspace extends all the way to the ground – the surface area. KEQA and 3AU are more typical non-towered airports, with the base of Class E airspace at 700 feet AGL. In Class E airspace under 10,000 feet MSL, pilots operating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) must maintain at least three miles’ flight visibility (visibility was greater than 10 miles on the day of the near collision). They must also remain at least 500 feet below, 1,000 feet above and 2,000 feet laterally from clouds (figure 3).
The Citation pilot had obviously cancelled IFR, or Air Traffic Control would not have given the Piaggio pilot his IFR release to take off. Hence, the Citation pilot was flying under Visual Flight Rules, and was required to maintain VFR minimums. Yet, 500 feet below the cloud base would have been about 600 feet AGL, or 2,000 feet MSL. The Citation pilot appears to have canceled IFR as soon as he broke out of the clouds, but well before he could legally operate under VFR.
It’s very likely the controller asked the Citation pilot to cancel IFR as soon as possible so the Piaggio could be released, in time for a G36 Bonanza behind the Citation on the approach to be cleared, and for my student and me to be released on our own departure clearance after that.
I’ve had requests from controller to do lots of things to expedite releases on busy IFR days, including keeping my speed up, slowing down on the approach, and cancelling my clearance as soon as possible. I always try to comply with these requests – as we all should – but I know I cannot violate the regulations in doing so … and the controller does not expect us to.
So, the Citation pilot may have been in violation of VFR cloud clearance requirements when he cancelled his clearance (I can’t be sure; remember, this is very speculative). He would have had to be about 600 feet AGL to be 500 feet below an 1,100-foot overcast. This would have put him about one mile out on the approach glideslope/glidepath in order to cancel IFR, not the four miles out where he cancelled.
Would adhering to the regulations have delayed other operations at the airport? Certainly. But, so what? The Citation would have landed and cancelled on the ground. The Piaggio would have continued to hold for release until the G36 flew its low approach and executed the published missed approach procedure (per the pilot’s request). Then the Piaggio would have been released, and finally my student and I would have been released. The Piaggio would have been delayed, but because we waited for the Citation to circle back and land, our departure time would probably have been about the same as it actually was.
Yet another issue is that, after going around, the Citation pilot flew a left-hand traffic pattern to a runway for which right traffic is prescribed (see “RP18” on the Sectional chart in figure 1). This meant that, on its downwind, the Citation was about aligned with the approach into Beech Field, flying opposite the direction of traffic. And, in order to maintain VFR, the jet would have had to remain below about 600 feet AGL. If an IFR airplane broke out on Beech Field’s approach the Citation might have been in direct conflict with that traffic.
We cannot excuse the Piaggio pilot for failing to visually clear the final approach and for not making a radio call on CTAF, as a back-up to visual scanning. But if the Citation pilot had complied with the Federal Air Regulations it’s most likely the controller would not have given the Piaggio pilot the release that prompted his taking the runway in front of the jet.
You Have to Look
Notably, there’s nothing to in-dicate the vertical limits of Class E airspace around non-towered airports on instrument approach charts or IFR Low Altitude En Route charts. You have to look at the VFR Sectional Chart to know the base of the Class E airspace. Yet, this is vital information to know before you can decide to cancel your IFR clearance before landing.
There’s a difference between flying a visual approach (while still on an IFR clearance) and cancelling IFR to fly under Visual Flight Rules. People may think “one mile and clear of clouds” is the standard for a visual approach, but it’s only good for VFR flight in Class G airspace, or if you request, and Air Traffic Control grants, a Special VFR clearance in Class D airspace or the surface area, where Class E extends to the ground (as at Jabara).
Making yourself aware of “all available information” (FAR 91.103) means knowing this as well. That’s one reason I use the Sectional Chart view on my Electronic Flight Bag during IFR flights unless I have a specific need to check information on the Low Altitude En route.
You’re a VFR Pilot
Many pilots tell me they file and fly IFR every time they fly, regardless of weather conditions, because it’s easier and they “don’t have to worry” about airspace rules and regulations. They’re absolutely correct that flying IFR takes a lot of the guesswork out of airspace clearances. However, we still have to be aware of the Visual Flight Rules cloud clearance and visibility requirements for controlled (and uncontrolled) airspace, even if we “always” fly IFR … because as soon as you cancel IFR before landing, or you take off visually to pick up a clearance in the air, you’re a VFR pilot.
Had the Citation pilot not acted quickly and correctly to go around from his visual landing, and side-stepped away from the runway to avoid the rapidly-climbing Piaggio turboprop, and if a collision had in fact occurred, then it’s possible that cancelling IFR when conditions did not permit it might have been found to be a contributing factor. Most likely, under the conditions that existed at the time of this near collision, VFR cloud clearance rules and good operating practice would have required the Citation pilot to cancel his IFR only after landing.
All pilots, including “always IFR” fliers, should review the airspace and VFR minimums information in Chapter 14 of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. Knowing and following the rules that apply when you are a VFR pilot just might prevent a collision.