Sometime in February 2017, I was flying VFR into Beaufort Airport, a trip I have made numerous times- probably my third most visited airport over my flying career. Maybe it was over-familiarity, or I was distracted by my conversation with Beaufort MCAS, but no matter what, I made a gigantic mistake.
I intended, and announced, landing on Runway 25 but inexplicably, started a left downwind for Runway 7. I was halfway into my downwind leg when I realized my mistake, crossed the field at midfield, and made my landing on 25 as planned.
I didn’t think too much of it until I got on the ground and looked at the chart. Runway 7 is a righthand pattern, which means I was on the wrong side of the airport. That was my second mistake (after misidentifying my landing runway.) Sure, I had fixed that mistake but there’s a reason that 7 has a right-hand pattern- the Beaufort Marine Base, planted squarely on the west side of the county airport.
Uh oh, I thought. Did I nick that airspace accidentally when I was on the wrong side of the airport? There is a small cutout in the Beaufort Class D airspace next to the Beaufort County Airport, probably to give local traffic a little extra space and since no one at the airbase called the Beaufort FBO while I was there, asking to talk to me, I felt pretty comfortable I was okay. Still, I had been talking to them and they knew my N#, so when I returned home that day, I pulled out one of the best tools that, as pilots, we all have in our flight bags- the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System, or ASRS.
Here’s the deal- the FAA recognized that gathering information was an important step in preventing incidents, and preventing incidents was a lot better than penalizing mistakes, but the challenge was, how does the FAA collect information that can be used as evidence against the pilots providing the information?
The solution was the ASRS. Information is collected by NASA, which strips the identifying information and hands the rest of the data to the FAA. Because the FAA values this information, a sweetener for the pilots was attached: immunity (in most cases) for violations if they had been self-reported.
For me, I wrote up what had happened, including the fact that it was my mistake alone and there were no other issues with airspace, the airport, or anything else- it was all me. I filed the report electronically and in a week or so, I received in the mail a small strip of paper that had a stamp from NASA- they had received my incident report and it was on file. Now I was covered in case something came up. I can fill out these forms as many times as I wish but only actually use it as protection from FAA sanctions every five years.
Remember that I said “in most cases”- this protection does NOT extend to reports of accidents or criminal activity (e.g., hijacking, bomb threats, and drug running), and the report must be filed within ten days of the incident. In fact, if you do report criminal activity, that information will be sent to whatever law enforcement agency that may have an interest.
And it’s not just for pilots- ATC and A&Ps all are included in this program. This is a win-win situation for everybody, and every pilot should keep this gem in mind.