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Here's the scenario: I was a student pilot on inbound for landing at my home airport on my final solo cross country flight I needed before doing a checkride.

At roughly 8 miles out to the north west, I established contact with the tower and was told to "enter left base, runway 7, report 3 miles out." I interpreted the "report 3 miles out" as to give the tower a call when I was 3 miles away from the field, ie, when my GPS indicated I was 3 miles from the field.

Now, it was the most windy day I had flown solo in so far (15kt gusts) so I wanted to make sure I had ample time to line up with the runway on final and get a feeling for how the winds were blowing since the ATIS reported them as being variable in direction.

That said, what I ended up doing was making a wide base, except apparently I made it a little too wide because the GPS did not indicate I was 3 miles from the field until I was on final. At this point, I called the tower, reported I was on a 3 mile final and was given clearance to land. After landing, I still had no idea I had done anything incorrectly as the controller made no indication to me.

A few hours after I landed, my CFI sent me a text message asking me how "report a 3 mile base" meant "report a 3 mile final and fly a straight in approach." I'm not sure if he was on the frequency when it happened or if the tower controller called him after the fact and told him about it because I was told to "report 3 miles out", not "report 3 mile base."

I completely understand that I made my base leg too wide and that caused me to deviate from an ATC instruction. What I'm wondering is how bad of a screw up is this? My CFI's reaction was one of legitimate anger and it makes me want to stay on the ground for a while.

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Did you speak with you CFI about the mistake in detail? There is nothing as bad as making a mistake and being unable to learn from it. – ratchet freak Apr 25 '14 at 16:19
@user2207 I cannot answer your question but only commenting about your last sentence. You might have, probably did cause some inconvenience so you've to learn from it. Don't get too upset about CFI. You are very close to not seeing him too often anyway. You can get a better CFII for the next phase. – Farhan Apr 25 '14 at 16:34
I may be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure the tower gives you a number to call if you've really screwed something up. And then you get to talk to someone from the FAA about it. If you didn't get a number... Not to downplay your mistake, I'm just sayin'. – Jay Carr Apr 25 '14 at 16:37
if you are worried then contact him before you go flying again, a good CFI will be able to explain what you should have done – ratchet freak Apr 25 '14 at 16:38
I don't know where you're training, but consider contacting the tower, explain the situation and try to arrange a visit. I am sure they're happy to explain their side of the game and their expectations. – DeltaLima Apr 25 '14 at 18:26
up vote 18 down vote accepted

Well, you screwed up, but nobody got hurt, no metal was bent, and since the tower didn't yell at you presumably you didn't obviously endanger anyone's safety (though there's always some level of risk when an aircraft isn't where the tower expects it to be).

As far as deviations go, that's not good, but it's not terrible. The tower was probably expecting you to report 3 miles out, continuing in to about a mile from the field for your downwind.

Schedule an extra half hour of ground time with your CFI before your next flight to talk about what happened. Also take the time to fill out an ASRS report explaining what happened and why (It's probably unnecessary in this case, as a student the tower will almost certainly be satisfied with you getting "a good talking-to" from your instructor, but it's a good way to learn how that system works.)

There are a couple of other things you might want to do on your next few training flights:

  1. Spend some time getting comfortable in the pattern on windy days.
    You should be comfortable in a tighter pattern than 3 miles, even on a windy day (see my next item for why). This takes practice, and fortunately for you it's spring (at least in the USA) so there are plenty of windy days in most of the country!

  2. Practice some engine-out approaches to get a feel for your plane's glide performance.
    A base leg 3 miles out in a typical GA trainer is very wide -- Remember you generally want to be able to make some spot on the runway if your engine quits on downwind, and you probably can't do that from 1000 feet AGL at 3 miles out.
    Take a few laps around the pattern and have your instructor pull the power at various points so you have a feeling for how the energy management works out - this will give you a good feel for how wide your pattern should be.

  3. Turn the GPS off and practice flying visually.
    The GPS is one link link in your error chain, but I think it's a big one: If you were flying visually and relying on landmarks to judge your distance rather than the 3 mile alert from your GPS you might have realized "Hey, I'm entering downwind - I should tell the tower!"

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+1 for the ASRS link. – casey Apr 25 '14 at 19:35
Biggest take away here is the lousy phraseology from ATC, especially with a student. Are you guys in the US? Do you have/use the prefix "TYRO"? – Simon Apr 25 '14 at 19:46
@BretCopeland Thanks. Personally, if I'd been the CFI, I would have invited the controller to a "tea, no biscuits" meeting along the lines of "if you want people to precisely follow your instructions, then issue precise instructions". That said, it does seem like the only person with a burr up his a** is the CFI. – Simon Apr 25 '14 at 20:11
I already stated my opinion about the matter in chat chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/15163821#15163821 – Bret Copeland Apr 25 '14 at 20:14
The tower said, "enter left base," so a downwind was not expected. It also said, "report 3 miles out," not, "report 3 mile base," so (assuming the OP's quoting is accurate) there was no violation, the CFI overheard the transmission, and the CFI was wrong. – Ralgha Apr 29 '14 at 15:40

It's not really bad at all. How do we know? Because the ATC didn't intervene or question you.

What emerges for me out of this report is that you need a new CFI. Getting angry at a student's innocent mistake is bad. In particular if it is not something you've been cautioned about before (have you?).

Communicating angry feedback by text is even worse. A good CFI would have waited till they had a chance to speak to you, and started with asking you what happened, not started with an attack on you.

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