Theories: Small World Meets Big Sky

On Monday July 1, two large commercial jets — both flying IFR under ATC control, and both equipped with functioning electronic collision avoidance systems — collided in rarified air some 35,000 feet over Germany… think it couldn’t happen to you?

I don’t know which would be worse: seeing demons from the inferno escape through the engine cowling, or bumping into a friend in the pattern. I’m sure that if flight were a game of Monopoly, most of us would rather draw the card from the decks of Chance or Community Chest that said ‘You have an engine failure. Pay each player $500.‘ And at least with an engine fire, you can dive and then hopefully get the heck out. Trading paint jobs, there’s no backing up. And unlike most auto accidents, almost 90% of the time, you won’t see it coming.

A bit over half of all midairs are survivable. But then, tails, you lose. You probably already knew that most of the time, they occur in the pattern at a non-towered field — and 80% of midairs occur on final. Of course, you probably also knew that nearly all midair collisions occur in VFR conditions, and that 90% actually happen in good VFR weather.

Almost all of us, sooner or later, will experience a near-midair collision. Speaking for myself, I’m pretty darn careful, and I’ve had three. The feds even have an acronym for it: NMAC. The FAA’s National Aviation Safety Data Analysis Center defines an NMAC as an incident in which a collision possibility occurs, when two aircraft get closer than 500 feet, or a report is received from a pilot or flight crewmember that (in their opinion) a collision hazard existed. (Note that it’s subjective.)

Roughly a sixth of us are student pilots, but student pilots are involved in over a third of midair collisions — those fractions should have an impact on both students and instructors. If you’re an old salt, old age and deceit won’t help you, either: half of the pilots involved in midairs have over 1500 hours.

DEFENSE (the short version)
Near as I can tell, you’re dead a long time. So I kind of like the idea of caution in the interest of procrastination. But even if you’ve got religion, you probably don’t like getting spooked, so … to avoid that heart-in-the-mouth feeling, remember:

  • Check six: Believe it or not, roughly 80% of midairs occur when one aircraft overtakes another, and at a relatively slow speed. If you don’t want some tailgater chewing your tail feathers, forget what Satchel Paige said, and look behind you! The Cessna 150 that I soloed in actually had a rear-view mirror. (Gee…why can’t we have more of those?)
  • Healthy Skepticism: A large percentage of position calls are inaccurate. Folks report something they’re near — not over — and then again there is subjective variance in any ATC ‘o’clock‘ traffic point-out, and more with relative movement and wind correction. It can all quickly add up to a 30-degree error. Also, it’s easy to accidentally ‘flip-flop‘ relative directions: A pilot looks at his DG, sees the airport ahead, and announces his relative location by reading off the top of his heading indicator, instead of what’s on the bottom. Not that dyslexia runs rampant in the pilot population, but people have even confused left and right. The moral here is don’t just aim your eyeballs at mid-field downwind, or two o’clock. Look every-darn-where! Also, be sure that you’re where you say you are!
  • Silence Is Not A Virtue: Just because you don’t hear anyone doesn’t mean no one is there.
  • Plan Ahead: Organize your cockpit to minimize time spent with eyes in the cockpit, and acknowledge areas of crowded airspace in your preflight planning.
  • Eyes Outside: Remember that the eyes require a second or two to make the transition from inside to outside scanning and it will take much longer for your brain to determine there’s a threat and properly react.
  • Clean Your Windows: Know your aircraft’s blind spots; compensate for glare, and have those crazed windshields-that-go-milky-white-into-the-sun replaced!
  • Stay Visible: Make slight turns while climbing or descending. Call your turns in the pattern when you are most visible (turning) and say so. Example: ‘Brookhaven traffic, Cessna, wing high, entering midfield left downwind for 24, Brookhaven
  • Stay Vigilant: If you think you see something’s not moving, vary your heading; if it does move in the window, it’s probably traffic. (If it doesn’t, it’s probably a bug.)

DEFENSE Cont’d (the unconventional…

  • Fly ‘odd-ball‘ altitudes if VFR under 3000′ AGL (e.g., 2300 instead of 2500), and cut corners near VORs when en route, ‘spreading out‘ traffic in the vicinity.
  • Try pilotage off airways, or else fly a couple of miles to the right of airways — or file IFR all the time, if you’re so rated.
  • If you’re the one that’s IFR, report your approach position by distance, not by fix name. ‘GUMBY inbound‘ might not mean much to a VFR-only pilot.
  • If you can’t afford your own personal TCAS, consider getting the poor man’s version: TPAS! … And pay attention to it. Speaking for myself folks, mine’s on order. (Early indications are that one crew involved in last week’s commercial midair did not obey their TCAS, but listened instead to controllers.)

…and the insufferably simple)

  • Always, clear airspace before you turn into it. Focus on a distant object first.
  • Always enlist passengers to help watch for traffic.
  • Light up (pulsed lights best of all, landing as well as strobes), squawk, and use flight following. For everyone who is not in IMC though, it’s still ‘see and avoid‘.
  • Keep your altimeter setting current.
  • Use sunglasses in glare conditions.
  • Upon approaching, entering, and at critical points within a traffic area, self-announce if it’s non-towered, and keep looking.
  • Slowing down buys you more reaction time.
  • An aircraft below can easily appear to be above you. While getting closer, it can appear to descend through your horizon. All the time it is straight and level below you. Avoid the temptation to dive.
  • Aircraft below you lost in the ground clutter are much harder to see than those above you. Look really hard behind you and below you when on final.
  • Use a standard traffic pattern. A 45-degree entry at TPA makes other aircraft easy to see — never use a descent from above as your entry into the pattern.
  • Double-check radio volumes and verify that selected frequencies are correct.
  • Listen in early on CTAF, or ATC as applicable, and get a picture of what’s out there.
  • Be aware of any instrument approaches; many NMACs involve one IFR and one VFR aircraft.
  • In the pattern, if you can’t see another aircraft that just indicated it is in close proximity, clear your turn, announce your intentions and exit that way. Come back later for another try.

BOTTOM LINE: There are more resources than your eyes to effectively see and avoid. Use all the tools at your disposal: lights, transponder, ATC, passenger’s eyes, and a little creative thinking to keep yourself safe.