Back when I was still attending Eastern Michigan U. I would often take my course books or even just a good work of fiction down the Ann Arbor Municipal airport and park at the end of one of the hangar rows. (this was before 9/11 when they would let you right out on the concourse). I could either sit in the car or out next to it or even on the hood and do my homework or read as the planes came and went.
I also had a handheld ham radio that was capable of scanning both the tower frequency and the general comms traffic for Washtenaw county. I usually did this on nice sunny days, especially in the spring, and this day was no exception. Those are the best days because there’s tons of activity, especially in spring, when lots of pilots without instrumental ratings can go fly their planes or practice their skills.
As it turns out, it was also the first day for a new controller in the tower. She was fresh out of Oklahoma city and was doing a damn good job. Ann Arbor is a relative small airport, but on a sunny spring day, even small airports can get pile-ups pretty quick.
As time went on the planes started to pile up in a regular pattern. There was one local instructor in a canadian trainer with a student, a couple of other students running circular patterns of touch-n-go landings as part of their flight training, a young guy in a experimental ‘spits’ by-plane was returning from doing some aerobatics practice for an up-and-coming airshow and a half-a-dozen other pilots were coming and going as part of the typical air traffic on a sunny spring afternoon.
On the ground were 4 more planes in various stages of preparing to take off. Most of these were coming from the side of the main terminal and tower, but one was also coming from the pilot’s association hangars on the far side of the runway adding a bit to the complexity on the ground.
Another pilot wanted to enter the existing pattern of traffic (students and already routed planes) from the north, and two others popped up quickly from the south. It was startin to get busy!!!
Well as it turns out, the young guy in the spits ends up getting put into the landing approach pattern right behind the instructor in the trainer. These trainer planes are notorious for being slow but very forgiving and maneuverable, thus making them good teaching planes. The spits is a little ‘hotrod’ of a plane. It also turned out the young guy flying the ‘spits’ learned to fly under the instructor currently teaching in the trainer. And they were also both going to be doing flying exhibitions in the up-coming air show. I picked this information up as my radio scanned between the tower and the general chatter air channels.
While the new controller in the tower was doing a pretty good job of keeping up with getting everyone their place coming or going in the pattern, she probably wasn’t aware that the guy in the ‘spits’ was talking to his old teacher in the trainer. Since they were one right after another in the incoming pattern, the young guy in the ‘spits’ wanted to seize the opportunity to practice something they were going to be doing for the air show.
Eventually he returned back to the tower frequency and requested permission to do a ‘break-off’ in the middle of the field with the other pilot in the trainer that was in front of him in the pattern. He also informs the tower that he’s already discussed this with the other pilot and the fact it’s something they are preparing for the “Fly-In” next month.
Being busy with her organizing the planes she approves it.
After hearing all this, I am now curious — as are a couple of pilots that were working on their planes in the hangars. I put down my book and look at the incoming air traffic and a the other pilots wander down to where I was parked to join me.
Sure enough, the small spits is now increasing speed and coming up along side the trainer. The tower radio frequency is still reporting the new controllers great strides in organizing the traffic – she’s doing a great job! Right on top of it, slotting in the south leg traffic, instructing the northbound to take a wider approach to come in behind the south, giving instructions to the one plane taxing into position while providing additional instructions to the 3 waiting on when to proceed for take-off. Great job!
As she’s finishing up her instructions and begins to look for where to slot-in the second southern plane approaching , the spits and trainer are now side-by-side just before the end of the runway. You can tell by the slowing of her speech that this caught her attention and it was starting to dawn on her that she approved this and was likely now wondering just what it was she had approved.
But she doesn’t miss a beat and continues on as the planes approach the midfield point.
Mind you, in general the planes quiet way down as they are coming in for landing so, short of the pre-flight checks being done way at the end of the runway by those awaiting take-off, midfield is reasonably quiet when there’s nothing but planes landing….. that is until those two reached midfield!
Suddenly they both pinned their throttles letting out a huge roar of straining diesel engine noises as both planes cranked back on their sticks and , ‘breaking off’ into an ascending ‘V’ pattern right in front of the tower. Adding a little flair to his part of it, the young guy in the spits does a roll as he passes right over the tower and the new controller’s field of view.
The controller’s instructions stopped midsentence – it was quite obvious it caught her off guard. After a brief pause came the words “oh shit” and the mic went silent.
You could see pilots in their planes laughing their asses off. A few on approach rocked their wings in recognition. One of the guys waiting for take off was laughing so hard you couldn’t see his head in the cockpit window for about 30 seconds. And just about everyone understood exactly what she was thinking.
As the air chatter eventually resume with her picking up the south-bound instructions as though she hadn’t missed a beat, the messages coming back from the various pilots that bore witness to the affair were full of nothing but praise of her skill.
And the thing I loved about it the most, all the guys in the planes both on the ground and in the air, those of us listening to the radios on the ground and in the hangars and everyone in the control room got to experience that great human moment. At that point, something led me look over at S. State street to realize that dozens of cars were driving by as part of the regular every-day traffic – probably even more on Eisenhower to the north of the field – and they all had no idea what they missed going on right over their heads!