A near miss at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport at the end of April could have ended much worse than it did.
During new Airport Director Steve Wright's report to the Airport Commission Thursday, he informed the commission of a runway incursion that took place on April 29. He said the pilot's reports from the incident were on his desk when he took over on May 2.
A helicopter was performing an autorotation training exercise at the same time a North Point Aviation student pilot was flying a fixed-wing plane into the airport, Wright said. The helicopter had started a descent from about 2,000 feet and the plane came within 10 feet of the helicopter as it came in to land, he said.
Both pilots were announcing their positions over the radio, Wright said, however the plane was on a different frequency than the helicopter, so they couldn't hear each other. After the incursion, there was a "verbal altercation" on the taxiway, he said.
"That means they landed, they got out and had a nice, pleasant discussion," Wright said, slightly tongue-in-cheek.
After reviewing the reports, Wright said he talked with one of the passengers in the helicopter. He said he tries to put himself in the pilot's shoes in an incident, as incursions do happen. The Federal Aviation Administration has a procedure for filing safety reports with NASA if an incursion happens, which is what happened in this situation. He said he believes the incursion was an isolated incident.
Because there was no damage to property and no injury, there won't be an investigation into the incursion, Wright said.
"But it could have," commission member Rachel Reabe Nystrom said. "So are there policies and procedures that we need to review?"
Part of Wright's task as the new director is to evaluate the traffic patterns and routes pilots are taking in and out of the airport, he said. Reviewing those patterns will ensure they're safe and make sure another incursion doesn't happen, he said.
It's up to the FAA to determine if the incident requires further investigation or disciplinary action for the pilots involved, Wright said.
"There's no doubt if the FAA doesn't like it, they'll get involved and make life miserable for everyone," Johnson said. "But the bottom line with flying is it's your responsibility."
Being on a different radio frequency is an easy mistake for a pilot to make, commission member Trudi Amundson said. The frequency at the airport is 122.7, she said, while the next common traffic frequency in the area is 122.8. The common traffic frequency is for everyone flying around in the area, she said.
"When I'm flying around here, I can hear people on 122.8 in Glencoe," Amundson said. "So it's really paramount that they key in the right frequency."
"Well that's really scary," commission member Gary Scheeler responded. "If it's that close, something's gotta be changed because you don't want a disaster then change things."
Amundson noted in her 25 year flying career, she's had one near-miss. Coincidentally, the other pilot was on a different frequency than she was.
An incursion is a pilot's responsibility, Wright said. It's up to the pilot to be aware of their surroundings and to communicate their position. Communication is imperative at airports without an FAA control tower like Brainerd's he said.
According to information from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, there are nearly 12,000 non-towered airports in the U.S., compared to approximately 400 with FAA towers.
Wright, a licensed pilot, said throughout a pilot's training, instructors hammer home the importance of performing the correct scans and procedures a pilot should perform when flying into an airport without an FAA control tower. Brainerd has one of the largest outstate helicopter bases, he said, so pilots need to be mindful of helicopter traffic.
"I will put that burden on the pilots themselves," Wright said.
Bringing up the close proximity of the plane and helicopter, Scheeler said "the old saying, close only counts in horseshoes, you know. It's crazy." The lack of corrective action because of the incursion didn't seem to sit well with him.
Mike Petersen, AOPA airport support network volunteer at the airport, told Scheeler he had given him an extensive report about six months ago on non-towered airport procedures.
"It is a very succinct and definite procedure that you use when you come in and out of an airport," Petersen said. "We hear the term uncontrolled and that elicits the feeling that it's chaos out there. It's anything but chaos, it's very procedure-based."
Most pilots are extremely careful about those procedures, Petersen said. The closeness of the miss was uncommon, he said, but it wasn't careless.
"Yes it was a serious infraction, there's no doubt about it," Petersen said. "But it's not the end of the world."