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Boxed-in: Contest Traffic Pattern Safety

By Dale Matuska

A pleasure flyer decided to take a flight one day to visit an airport where an IAC contest was in progress. Using information from the notice to airmen published specifically for the event, he followed all the rules for announcing his arrival into the area. As he arrived on downwind, he almost tangled with an aircraft exiting the aerobatic box. What follows are his observations about the uniqueness of operations at IAC contests and how they may create a safety gap with outside traffic during the heat of a contest.

“This summer while I was on downwind to land following the notice to airmen for the IAC contest that I knew was in progress, I announced 10 miles, five miles, two miles, one mile, entering downwind, and then downwind. Usually, I wouldn’t be so chatty, but I knew there was more activity in the area than normal. There wasn’t much activity on the radio; however, I did hear some garbled noise and attempted to contact the caller, indicating I couldn’t understand him. Later, I was told that the pilot was using a handheld radio to save weight; I don’t know if this was true.

The offending pilot, after exiting “the box,” shot straight for a midfield downwind where I was. I never saw him as he went under my wing. I did see him after he reemerged on my left side at my altitude parallel to my downwind. I wasn’t amused. He told me he would “take it up” with me on the ground and that he was in a competition and finishing a routine. The safety officer who had monitored the flight said they would talk to the pilot and leave me out of it. I thankfully took his advice.

Instead of visiting the day’s events, I had a slow breakfast and then flew home. Later, I was told that some aerobatic pilots routinely fly with only enough fuel to make the field after a flight, and they routinely go straight for the runway because of low fuel. This was my first attempt to find out what goes on at a contest. My wife asked me to please stay home next time there’s a contest.

This is what I learned:

  • The box used a frequency different from the common traffic advisory frequency, leaving aerobatic pilots without much advanced communication.
  • Give pilots using handheld radios enough time to fiddle with the little knobs. If the radio can’t be heard, they can’t fly.
  • Perhaps no one was telling the aerobatic pilots about other traffic in the area after they left the box.
  • There’s no cool-down and calming time after a rigorous aerobatic flight in an area outside the traffic pattern of the airport where pilots would need to reenter as standard traffic.
  • This last one is a question about something I learned. Why is it common knowledge to several pilots I talked to that only a minimum amount of fuel is carried for performance reasons, causing them to sprint for the runway?”
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