Preventable rendezvous: avoiding a mid-air collision

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As we breathe a sigh of relief after the amazing outcome of the serious midair in Denver this month, with a parachuting Cirrus and a cool Metro pilot unaware of the chunk taken away from his plane, I am driven to think of my own near misses, the learnings from it, and how to avoid them altogether.

The principle of the implementation of Air Traffic Control was to address the fact that, although huge, the sky is limited, especially by airspace, airways, and approach paths. As they got busier and busier by the first half of the 20th century, high profile midair collisions happened, inspiring the incredible system we have today, capable of handling thousands of flights per day nearly flawlessly. Yes, I used the word “nearly” on purpose, because ATC is made and followed by humans, therefore, some mistakes do happen—or in many cases ATC is unable to arrest some pilot mistakes fast enough. And from the very beginning of controlled airspace comes the first near miss I had.

A high wing climbing into a low wing airplane is a dangerous combination.

I learned to fly at an uncontrolled airfield in central Florida, therefore we used a CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency) to coordinate the traffic among ourselves. Curiously, students tend to get scared of talking to a tower, but the truth is, at controlled fields you pretty much do whatever you are told. At uncontrolled ones, it is much more critical to know where you are, where others are, and how to get where you want to and how to communicate that effectively. And since we always had a busy skydiving activity going on, with the SkyVan and Pilatus pilots using the crossing runway to save time, the room for mistakes was even smaller. With time and practice, most of us dealt well with it, and despite parachuters raining over the field on sunny days, their pilots were really good in land and hold short operations.

As I did my first takeoff ever, in a Cessna 152 that warm afternoon in May 2012, we climbed out off runway 30 with the not so great Cessna rate, and after reaching 700 ft we turned 45 degrees to the right to head to what we used to call the “northern practice area.” Completely overwhelmed by those first minutes as a student pilot in a real airplane, with my instructor busy telling me things, we were climbing through about 2000 ft—unaware of a commercial multiengine checkride happening three miles behind, two miles behind, one mile behind…

My promising pilot career almost ended in the first 10 minutes logged. The Piper PA-34 Seneca just passed us from the right, maybe with the trainee under the hood, or the examiner looking at something else—we will never know, as they never saw us. Fortunately we were a couple hundred feet apart, and both my career and theirs is still on nearly a decade later.

We were in Class E airspace, but heading to the practice area, 15 miles north, for maneuvers. Thus, we were both out of the airport frequency, but not yet reporting on the practice area radio. So, first lesson here: data shows that over half of mid-air collisions happen from behind, when a faster aircraft overtakes a slower one. This is true in the pattern and en route alike. So, always think ahead—even more so if you are flying a fast one.

What takes me to the second near miss I had, much later. Months passed and as a Private Pilot with an Instrument rating, I rented a Cessna 152 to build hours. I knew that ahead of me there was Cessna 172 who had departed minutes earlier. As I took off and headed out of the pattern to call approach and ask for a VFR flight following, I kept climbing. Again, we were outside of Class C airspace, so it took a while to get two-way radio communication, a discrete transponder code, and ident.

Out of nowhere, the Cessna 172 just appeared—very close to my head! I made a quick left turn, avoided the other airplane, and life went on. Apparently the instructor in the other airplane had exactly the same path in mind when she took off, but since she flew a bit more to the north before returning, we ended up at nearly the same point in space and time, despite the difference in time and performance: recipe for disaster.

Second lesson: high wing airplanes give you a nice view of the ground, but they can get you in trouble with traffic above. Keep that in mind.

Airplane in sun

Haze, bright sun, and other factors can make it hard to spot another airplane if you don’t know where to look.

One year later, already a commercial multiengine pilot but still seeking a job, I did my favorite vacation program: cross-country with friends. We were renting a beautiful Piper Archer, equipped with a Garmin 530 that actually showed traffic! As trivial as it is today to fly with that information over busy Gulf skies, at that time it was a game changer. I even liked night cross-countries a lot because spotting other targets was much easier. With that powerful feature, what could go wrong flying on a beautiful morning from South Florida to DC?

Somewhere over the Georgia coast, under VFR flight following with Savannah, we saw a target on the GPS screen. It was climbing, from below us. We asked Savannah, but the guy was not talking to them. We just turned left and the Cirrus passed like an elevator less than half a mile east of us.

Lesson three: ADS-B is an amazing tool, and we might get some improvement in the number of mid-airs with its introduction.

A few days later, we jumped in the backseat of a friend’s Cessna 172 in Virginia and crossed the Appalachians to have an amazing steak for lunch. It was a short flight and the guys decided not to call anyone but the destination airport. Just as we were over a valley, trying to find our destination in the morning haze, a single engine piston showed up out of nowhere and my friend had to quickly maneuver out of its way. Well, I don’t know if the other airplane was in contact with anyone, but we weren’t, and that fault is entirely ours.

Lesson four: get a VFR flight following. It is not a perfect solution, and you are still expected to see and avoid, but it is definitely an extra layer.

First in GA, and later in the airlines, I had other opportunities to see nearby traffic. For the small ones, remember: beautiful days are more likely to have mid-air collisions. Simply put, more people are flying out there, relying often on their eyes only. So, just because it is a perfect day to fly, do not let your guard down. If another traffic is stationary on your window, it is time to do something. And many formation flights are the start of a chain of events that lead to a midair: don’t be that guy. Train, communicate, take every minute in the air seriously, even more so if planning on flying deliberately close to someone else.

In the airlines, TCAS is king: here and there you will have some advisories, but be ready for the resolution maneuver. It is not that complicated and we do it every six months in the simulator. If you can skip all the fuzz watching for traffic around and being gentle on your climb and descent rates, it’s much better. Most of the “at or below” and “at or above” restrictions on the chart have to do with converging traffic, so keep an eye on that.

The sky is huge, but we are fast enough to shrink it beyond the acceptable amount.

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