When Center controllers serve as Approach controllers, they usually have much less capability to see other traffic down low because their antenna site is just too far away from the airport they are controlling.
I was the pilot flying and my partner had been making all the required calls on the Unicom, as well as monitoring the Unicom frequency while we were still with Atlanta Center.
Since everything was progressing as expected, until the turn inbound, I initially wondered if the target was the preceding jet, but I dismissed that because they had way too big a lead on us. So, who else could it be? Finally, the pilot of the single-engine Cessna made his ten-mile call on the Unicom, totally unaware that we were 5 miles behind them, at roughly double their speed, lined up for the same runway. I do not know for sure, but I suspect a “practice instrument approach” was being conducted. I asked the pilot to do a Left 360 to get behind us, and continued to watch them on our Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) display. (Man, that system really lived up to its name on this flight!)
At two miles behind the Cessna and closing rapidly, we were still IMC. I decided to go around, and I began to climb to the missed approach altitude to avoid the interloper. We called Atlanta to ask for a reset.
The second approach was uneventful. The crew from the other jet and the FBO attendant said they heard it all on the Unicom. Our passengers took it all in stride and their only comment was, when they saw me adjust my air vent to blow some cold air on my face, they knew things were getting tense. I admitted to them that the situation had raised my blood pressure.
I have been an FAA Safety Team (FAAST) volunteer for the past few years, and I really wanted to talk to that pilot once I got on the ground, but they did not land in Rome.
I have long held the opinion that doing practice approaches while VFR is a “false economy” for training because that is not the rules you will be playing by when it is for real. Lowering your workload to concentrate on your cross check may seem like a good idea, but it’s not making you a better instrument pilot. As it turns out at places like Rome, you have responsibilities to concurrently communicate with ATC and the pilots at the intended destination when it’s a non-towered airport.
Here is a paradigm shift for you; I once heard a seasoned and highly placed ATC specialist correct the verbiage in the AIM. He said, “It is not an uncontrolled airport, it is a pilot-controlled airport.” And, of course, he is right. The rules are there as a framework, but ultimately, it is good communication with other pilots and behaving in a expected manner that ensures safety. I have a whole rant about pilots who do not use the Unicom “because they don’t have to,” but I’ll save that for another post.
The VFR pattern procedures are designed to be self-deconflicting if they are adhered to by all players, but “clearing on the radios” is as important as clearing out the windows.
The story in Rome highlighted a couple of issues for me. First, even if the Cessna pilot was following the cloud clearance rules by being 500 feet below the overcast, venturing 10 miles away from the airport and playing in the “IFR sandbox” was, at a minimum, bad form. If they had just entered a left downwind from a 45 degree angle, I think this whole situation could have been avoided.
If you are going to practice IFR flying, do it all the way, following all the rules of communication. If you are going in to an airport, 10 miles out is the minimum for making a call on Unicom. You can begin a listening watch much farther out than that. In fact, we had made calls well North of Rome and had been listening to the Unicom when we were 20nm North. When there is no control tower, it is a pilot-controlled field.