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Compton Airport Accident What Can We Take Away?

As members of the aviation community our hearts and prayers go out to those affected by last Wednesday’s accident at the Compton airport. Over the course of my career I’ve been involved with two incident investigations; one involving a major facility accident, the other a helicopter. Happily, neither involved loss of life. Both provided a list of lessons learned that were used to make improvements and increase safety.

In the real world, there is no more sure way to discredit yourself than to profess a premature opinion that is not supported by facts, data, and analysis. Open speculation has no place in the investigation process and that is NOT the point or purpose of this article. I offer no such speculation on the Compton accident, and none should be inferred.

I do want to use this event to reinforce some important basic training principles – no more than that.

First is Situational Awareness (SA). Each pilot must maintain an accurate mental picture of the ever changing situation around their airplane. Knowing what our own airplane is doing is not enough. We must be aware of what’s going on in all directions. With practice and experience we can increase our ability to engage a larger area of awareness as well as to access the situation more quickly. The ability to engage the situation, divide our attention WITHOUT losing focus, and stay ahead of developments must be part of our early pilot training. In the pattern we need to pay special attention to the airplanes ahead of and behind us. There are many factors to consider such as: is the airplane ahead a full stop or a touch and go? Is it slower than we are? Is the airplane behind us faster than we are? What type of airplane being flown (high wing, low wing, bi-plane)? Where are their blind spots? What are the local conditions (winds, traffic, visibility)? And a whole host of others. With accurate SA we can adjust to better facilitate the flow of traffic and enhance safety. The ability to quickly and accurately formulate a situational picture in one’s mind is also a perishable skill and must be practiced constantly.

Second is communication. Especially at an uncontrolled airport where see-and-avoid as well as traffic management are up to each Pilot-in-Command; Clear, Concise, and Accurate reporting of position and intentions is critical. We often spend too much time treating the Unicom frequency as if it were our own private phone line. We can avoid this by saying what we need to say, and then getting off the mic to open the frequency for someone else. Communication is key to everyone’s ability to establish and maintain good SA. We likely can’t know what the airplane is behind us if it doesn’t communicate. It’s often been said “If you’re talking, you’re not listening”. That is never truer than when communicating over a radio when you literally cannot listen while you’re transmitting.

Finally, clearing the runway quickly after landing is both a courtesy and a safety enhancement. Fundamentally, when you land, you own the runway until you’re clear. At tower airports, controllers are required to maintain a safe interval between landing aircraft and no two aircraft can occupy the runway at the same time. I’ve seen a pilot shutdown in the middle of the runway because they had a flat main wheel when a taxiway was only a few yards ahead. This effectively closes the airport … until another pilot’s impatience becomes overwhelming and they begin landing and taking off past the disabled airplane while it sits on the runway (I’ve seen it happen). Treat the landing area as sacred, realizing that the airport is effectively closed to other runway operations until you’re clear. Don’t do stop-and-go operations when the pattern is full.

It’s often said that in aviation, lessons are written in blood. Unfortunately, that is often true.

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