My Last Near Miss

I happened to remember the other day while I was driving this experience from my life as a pilot. I was on my way back from an American Bonanza Society (ABS) Service Clinic, where experts on the Beech aircraft line went over my plane with a fine-tooth comb, looking for problems. They poked and prodded, did a retraction test of the landing gear, and found a few problems that needed to be resolved.

One significant problem the ABS team did find was with my fuel distributor, which had a leaking diaphragm that needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, I had sandwiched in the Service Clinic between my free morning and my job in the afternoon, so when I finally finished up the Service Clinic and launched homeward I was in a hurry.

The miles peeled away as I headed home at a high power setting. The plane was handling well, and I was listening to the applicable radio frequencies as I passed through the various airspaces out there. As I approached the Quad Cities area, I noted I was well above the altitude that would have required participation in the ARSA, (Airport Radar Service Area for you youngsters), so I opted not to participate. Since it was a clear, CAVU day, I didn’t see why I should talk to the ARSA folks, and potentially get deviated around and slowed down in my already delayed trip home.

I was scanning the skies for traffic, and listening to the approach control frequency at Quad Cities. I scanned carefully, taking each piece of the sky in sequence, and focusing for a moment to look for traffic, just as I was trained to do. While I was scanning, I looked down for a moment at my DME, and watched the miles tick off to my next waypoint.

Suddenly I found myself with a real lulu: I was converging from behind on a high-wing Cessna at approximately my altitude and flying roughly the same heading. My pulse raced as I turned to the right to put some comfort-space between my newfound company and myself. ATC thought I was too close, too — as I started my turn, I heard them warn the Cessna that I was converging with them, and then state, “never mind, the plane has turned and will pass you off to your right.

Sounds pretty simple, right? See and avoid is the credo we live by as VFR pilots, but do not let this lesson pass. When you’re on your own in the aircraft, some threats become sharper — if left unattended, you might get stabbed.

  • No scan, no see, no avoid. This type of approach has already led to several mid-air collisions.
  • Use your resources. When possible and practical, stay on frequency and make contact with ATC. The Cessna was alerted to my presence, but the controller did not know I was on frequency and therefore did not alert me. If ATC had been busier, would a controller have alerted the Cessna in time? If I had been folding a chart, would I have seen the Cessna? When they were alerted, what if they turned as I noticed them and started a similar turn in the same direction?
  • Remember: In the air, bad things can happen to good people — and they can happen in a hurry.

Had I picked up the mic and said hello to the ARSA controllers, I would have likely been passed through without so much as a hint of a course change. Better yet, it’s likely the potential conflict would have been identified long before it became a present danger. Contact with controllers also would have provided an additional, active line of defense with ATC filling the role as a separate set of eyes, looking for problems in my sky, while I was looking inside the cockpit.

WHAT KIND OF PILOT ARE YOU? Do you use all your available defenses, or just those that are convenient? Do you skirt around or over the top of ARSAs (now called Class C Airspace), or do you go out of your way to communicate to assure your position is known and understood. The choices you make are important here – make sure you are flying with a full deck of defenses – use the available airspace systems and controllers. Trust me on this: you won’t miss the adrenaline rush from that near-miss (or near hit) in the sky. I learned by experience, but you can learn from mine.