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A student pilot I encountered owned his own Piper Warrior. Although not unheard of, it's unusual to find someone willing to invest in an airplane before earning the first certificate, so I was intrigued. One more surprising element: he had 120 hours of solo since his original sign off, 100 more than he needed, almost all logged in local flights and pattern work. Some of it was illegal, done without the benefit of the required 90 day CFI signatures.

Lots of solo: no license. But he wasn't an outlaw–on the contrary, he seemed sober-sided and responsible, an almost perfect citizen: the illegal solos were the result of misinformation and poor CFI communication, not a determined effort to flout the law. Looking at his logbook in an effort to discover which requirements remained incomplete, I found he had met and exceeded almost every single checkride prerequisite. The record showed that he would periodically engage a CFI, do some dual and supervised solo, then quit for an extended period before getting started again. I would be the fourth instructor to attempt completion–the others had eventually moved on to different projects.

The most obvious suspect area was theoretical knowledge: some students who master the mechanical skills of flight remain cowed by the necessity of sitting down and taking a test. Not this gentleman: he had passed and allowed to expire two Private writtens, both with scores over 95%. Since each test had been good for two years, you can easily get a feeling for how long this enterprise had been dragging on.

A little more investigation revealed that his longest layoff followed the only solo cross-country he had attempted. Navigation theory was apparently not the issue, so I dug deeper and finally found an incident: he had screwed up his arrival at a destination airport, then had a run in with Air Traffic Control (ATC). The events were so painful that the student had actually begun to "hide" them: his cross-country memories were unremarkable–a simple tale of a trip taken and completed. He hadn't attempted any more, it was true, but to hear him tell it, nothing special had happened. It was only after I began to suggest some more solo cross country that his discomfort began to show–I began to feel I had a future in counseling.

Here is what had happened: armed with detailed instructions from his CFI on his first solo cross-country, the student launched on a trip intending to transit some busy airspace close to an international airport. He was not at all comfortable with ATC, but had extensive notes on who to call and exactly what to say. After messing up an unfamiliar airport arrival he eventually contacted a radar facility and carefully read his prepared statements into the microphone.

Then the trouble started: ATC couldn't find him. He had misreported his position, saying "East" for "West." I doubt if anybody got mean right away, but there was apparently a long period during which the student kept reporting his position and the controller kept not seeing him. This type of thing can only go on for so long before even the best-tempered controllers begin to get edgy. An eternity of cross talk only got the student more nervous and ATC more irritable, but finally the situation was resolved. It's not hard to imagine the bite in the controller's tone as he enlightened the befuddled student: "66J, you are west of the airport, not east. Your position is...."

The incident wasn't really remarkable. We must all admit moments of similar numbness. The student's mortification, however, was extreme. He turned tail, then basically quit leaving home. ATC had become the enemy, and the student practically abandoned his goal of a license.

The story has a happy ending: none of this is brain surgery, and once the difficulties were located they became fixable. The most important elements, however, might not be exactly what you expect: this student did not need more crib sheets, more scripts or more practice on the radio. What he needed instead was to improve in two other areas.

1. He needed to change his mind about the relationship between ATC and the pilot in command. Like many students, he started out intimidated and let things get worse; what made his experience stand out was simply the extreme depth of his embarrassment and his willingness to let others make him feel badly.

2. Even more important, he needed instruction in unfamiliar airport arrivals. For this student, the largest area of cross-country difficulty finally came down not to radio procedures, but to the unfamiliar airport arrival. This is what got him rattled in the first place and made the rest of the flight so uncomfortable.

Teaching and flying year-round at a very busy airport, one gets ample opportunity to listen to the actions of pilots unfamiliar with the area. Sometimes, poor procedures and half-understood communications result in mix-ups much worse than the story above: base legs flown for the wrong runway, downwinds flown against the traffic, and aircraft wandering around in the pattern unable to find the airport at all. It all happens, and it's often only the patience and skill of others that prevents disaster. Three procedures could easily bypass the worst of this.

The first: while you are still learning to get around in the air, overfly unfamiliar airports before becoming committed to a specific entry. Circling once or twice at 2000'AGL directly over non-towered airports or at 3000' at towered fields provides the best opportunity to see the runways in use, the pattern and the obvious landmarks.

Communication is simplified as well: for a tower, tell them you're overhead (include your altitude), have the ATIS and would like to land. A typical response would be: "Descend to the north, make right traffic for runway 24, and call on the 45." The same technique adapts easily to uncontrolled fields and provides an essential opportunity to determine all the information necessary for landing that may not be available from Unicom: runway in use, wind, traffic pattern and the location of other aircraft.

The second: Visualize the traffic pattern and the 45° entry path completely before you commit. It's easily done, but the commercial existence of a small plastic "traffic pattern computer" suggests the need of some technique here. By far the best solution is to imagine–or draw–your airplane taking off from runway 24, heading roughly 240°. Now, make a right turn (crosswind) and another (downwind) and you're in right traffic. It can all be visualized as you approach or while flying overhead and will make picking a spot from which to enter the 45 fairly simple.

If you have chosen to circle overhead, the next step is depart to the north at a 90° angle to the landing runway and fly until you are abeam the point chosen for entry to the 45. On the way, you can descend comfortably to pattern altitude, complete your pre-landing checks and prepare to make a wide turn to the 45. The procedure offers the great advantages of being orderly, predictable and relatively free of conflict with other arriving and departing traffic.

The third: understand or query instructions and do only what you're familiar with. Often, pilots become intimidated by tower instructions they don't understand. Ordered to "report over the college" or "enter left base, report crossing Sears," they assume there is something so remarkable about the named landmark that it will stand up and be recognized. Too late, they suddenly realize they've overflown the airport at pattern altitude or joined the downwind going the wrong way, all while peering about trying to find the elusive landmark.

One query, one statement like, "I'm unfamiliar with the area" would make it a lot easier for all concerned. Most controllers will respond with a description of the landmark referenced to your position or the even simpler option: "Make full left traffic, report on the 45."

This last possibility underlines the necessity of mastering the 45° entry. It's a procedure that sometimes gets overlooked in Primary training: CFIs can become so familiar with the airports at which they teach that "standard" entries get ignored. Easily the safest entry procedure, the 45 gives you a good look at traffic, a merging-type entry, and, most important, extra time to make sure you haven't forgotten an essential pre-landing item in your effort to get on the ground. It's worthwhile to keep in mind that you are most likely to forget normal routines while being asked to the unusual.

Finally, on the general subject of unfamiliar actions, why accept a base entry or a straight-in at all if you are uncertain of the area or the airport location? It's completely acceptable to respond to instructions to enter on the base by saying that you would prefer to find the airport, then make a 45 degree entry to the downwind. In offering non-standard entries, the tower is simply trying to help you out, assuming that time is of the essence. It isn't, necessarily. Save the base entries for your second visit, when the airport is no longer unfamiliar, and you'll eliminate a lot of confusion and make flying smoother and more enjoyable.

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