April 2010 Issue

Mid-Air Collisions: The Myth And The Math

Mid-airs aren’t always fatal, and all of them can be avoided. Keep up your speed, look outside and vary your aircraft’s attitude to eliminate blind spots.

Few chapters in the great book of safe flying are as incomplete and misleading as guidance for avoiding mid-air collisions. In over 50 years of active flying, I have not yet seen any information accurately describing a workable method ensuring awareness and avoidance of mid-air collisions for the general aviation pilot. In fact, the FAA’s well-meaning rules and guidance may be dysfunctional seeds of disaster, sown early in a pilot’s flying career, later leading to a mid-air collision. It’s actually a familiar story: Concepts based on intuitive assumptions—instead of empirical knowledge—so often become concrete and immutable. The pilot’s ability to see and be seen is one of the most profound of all safety myths, and understanding why pilots are not always able to meet this obligation will help avoid complacency, motivating us all to compensate for deficiencies in the system. Let’s get started.

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