The column of black smoke rose like an obscene gesture to the north west of our control tower at Reid Hillview airport in San Jose, Calif. Id just come off a break and saw it as I stepped into the tower cab. The ground controller was busy lining up a string of trainers from one of the flying schools.
The tower controller, or what we called the Local controller, had a loaded traffic pattern with two parallel runways – one full of touch and go traffic the other reserved for itinerants. It was a busy shift, no different than most, except for the black smoke.
The phone rang, Did you guys lose one? the unidentified caller asked. I looked around. Nothing seemed out of order. No, I said and hung up.
It was my turn in the barrel to work Local and, as I received the briefing from the other controller, the phone rang again. Someone else picked it up and, from her expression, I gathered we had, indeed, lost one. Two actually. Everyone looked toward the column of black smoke. There had been a mid-air collision and we didnt know it.
On that beautiful June day in 1982, with 25 miles visibility, two airplanes collided in San Jose. One, a Cessna 172, had just departed Reid Hillview for a six-mile flight across town to San Jose Municipal (now, International). Three minutes later, the pilot had left our frequency and was in contact with San Jose tower.
A Twin Cessna was also in contact with the same tower. It had been cleared to land from a straight in VFR approach to runway 30R. The twin came in fast and the pilot elected to go-around. Tower directed him into right traffic and issued the 172 as inbound traffic. Turning right downwind the twin was in a right bank with its belly exposed to the Cessna 172 that was in a left bank with its belly exposed to the twin. Blind, they hit. Wreckage dropped into a parking lot and exploded, hence, the black smoke. No survivors.
Blame can be spread across a broad range whenever theres an accident, but only after the fact. In this otherwise routine operation, two pilots and two control towers did not foresee the combination of ballistics, geometry and chance that ran those two airplanes together. It doesnt matter whos technically at fault. What does matter is the fact that talking to ATC, whether it be Center, Tower or Approach, does not guarantee protection against mid-air collisions. In some ways, it may enhance them by encouraging pilot complacency.
Hits and Misses
Luckily, mid-air collisions are infrequent. Thirteen occurred in 1997, of which 11 were fatal, according to AOPAs 1998 Nall Report. With two aircraft per accident, 26 crashed killing 29 people. On the bright side, the number of mid-airs was down from 18 in 1996; up a tad in 1998 with 15. Early returns show 1999 off to a safer start.
Close encounters of the second kind are Near Misses, where flights unintentionally get within 500 of each other. They are much more common. In 1997 there were 236 recorded near misses; 207 in 1998. The true number is impossible to tell, because no one knows how many go unreported and, scarier yet, how many go unnoticed inside the cockpits. The mid-air, by contrast, always gets reported.
Its about the worst nightmare scenario a pilot can face, because even the toughest airplanes are not designed to bump into things. In 1986 an Aeromexico DC-8, on vectors from ATC, hit a Piper Archer over Cerritos, California. Both aircraft crashed in a fiery heap. Among the many factors the NTSB cited for the collision, was, Visual Lookout…Inadequate. Meaning, neither crew was looking outside, or at least not in the right place.
A mid-air cant be fixed, so collision avoidance is the only option.
Advances in technology, such as TCAS, a.k.a. Fish Finders, are great but technology has its limitations. TCAS only sees transponder equipped aircraft, and a false alert may inadvertently cause other complications. Radar controllers have long had Conflict Alert programs to warn of potential conflicts. All these systems are good tools but they dont put a Star Trek force field around the aircraft to deflect traffic. Because systems fail, pilots need to look outside the cockpit to see and avoid traffic.
See and avoid is at the heart of the ATC separation business. Air traffic controllers are not responsible for separating all air traffic. VFR and IFR pilots often mix it up without any government oversight. Only inside the relatively confined limits of class B or C airspace does ATC positively separate all IFR traffic from all VFR (no VFR is allowed in A airspace). In all other situations, think of the radar controller as an extra set of eyeballs with superhuman ability to see through clouds. They will assist you in finding traffic, but they cant bear the entire load.
Some controllers dont even have radar. It may be out of service or has lousy coverage in a certain area or maybe the tower didnt make enough at the last bake sale to purchase one. Non-radar controllers can swear on a stack of 7110.65s (the ATC manual) that no other IFR traffic is in your protected chunk of air, but they cannot see every ultra light or rogue 747 that is scud-running on the other side of your reserved cloud.
On an instrument approach to an uncontrolled airport, where theres no control tower, you become the local controller. When making the transition from on the gauges to landing the airplane your mind has to instantly change from a concentrated focus to a broad peripheral view to catch intruders.
As you break out of the clouds into what is probably class G airspace (generally up to 700 AGL over an uncontrolled airport with an approach), you may encounter VFR traffic that is just as legal to be there as you are, even though youre still on an IFR clearance in thoroughly stinko weather. Furthermore, within class G airspace, you could be inside the clouds with another legal instrument flight operating at your wing tip, yet not in contact with ATC.
Class E airspace that goes to the surface around an airport without a control tower should protect IFR traffic from VFR traffic in instrument weather, but dont bet on it. Always expect the VFR margin runner to squeak into the pattern on you.
Unlike other government agencies, the FAA is not perfect. Mistakes happen, and ATC is not immune from a bad air day. Systemwide, controllers get caught making about 700-800 errors, called deals, per year. There are so many built in safeguards, such as arrival procedures, supervision and team work, that no one hits. Still, when youre talking to ATC, even on an IFR clearance, its your responsibility to look outside the cockpit.
Pilots only think the FAA is everywhere. Of the more than 5,000 public use airports in this country, only 467 have FAA-operated control towers. As expected, most mid-airs and near misses occur near uncontrolled airports. Without a traffic cop on every corner, were left to fend for ourselves. A sleepy backwater airport can turn into an amateur air show arena on weekends as pilots who havent been near an airplane for six months will fly kamikaze missions to get a free pancake feed.
Making Your Presence Known
Professional pilots and tower controllers know how to spool up as traffic density increases. You can tell the real pros by their radio technique. They use only those words that get results, leaving time to scan for traffic and to work the problem.
Pilots can spool up by listening to the CTAF from 20 miles out. The inbound pilot can glean a wad of information before ever touching the microphone button. Then, with the traffic picture in mind, the pilot inserts a few well chosen position reports: …entering downwind…on base…going around for the clown who just pulled out on the runway…
Bad radios can be worse than no radios. Handheld radios are okay to a point, usually, just outside the traffic pattern. I use a handheld in my 1946 Aeronca Champ because, like many antique airplanes, it has no electrical system. Connected to an exterior antenna, however, the handheld has a decent range allowing me to receive calls from 20 nm out and transmit reliably to about 15 nm. For most uses this is more than adequate. Without the exterior antenna the range is considerably less.
Gliders and ultralights might use either no radio or a handheld, so dont be surprised to find someone else in your pattern who isnt on the frequency. Skydivers may fall without radios, but the jump plane should announce jump status both with ATC and on CTAF. A 1993 accident over Northampton, Mass., between a Cherokee and a skydiver emphasizes how even proper radio technique does not prevent disaster.
The jump plane was in contact with Bradley Approach and had made an announcement on the Unicom frequency prior to jumpers away. The jump zone was properly charted with the parachute symbol on the sectional chart. A passing Cherokee at 5,700 was monitoring Unicom, but never saw the lone jumper. A free-falling body is almost impossible to spot. The jumper hit the Cherokees tail and the plane crashed. The jumper survived, but not the Cherokee occupants. Perhaps its best to circumnavigate jump zones.
The CTAF is not ATC. Pilots who learn to fly at towered airports where ATC calls the shots might rely too heavily on Unicom operators to act as quasi-controllers. Unicom operators are the same people who pump the gas and mow the grass. They are not required to be on duty or even answer your call. Then sometimes its on a worn-out base radio that you wont hear until you taxi into the pilots lounge.
In aviation its not who you know that matters but who you see, and, since you cant see everywhere at once, see and avoid must include see and be seen. Turn on all the lights. Strobes are best, day or night. Use landing lights anytime youre near an airport. When its time to repaint your airplane skip the mottled earth tones with a pale blue belly. This scheme works great for the military, but has no place on civilian birds. Get noticed. Make other pilots say, Geez, thats the ugliest airplane Ive ever seen! The goal is to be noticed in someone elses scan.
Staring is not scanning. To gaze indifferently out the window is to focus on an indefinite point in space which causes the eyes to relax and the mind to go numb. Much like I remember Algebra class. In order to spot traffic we need to systematically move our vision from sector to sector and physically move our heads like Stevie Wonder as we scan.
Watch for that speck that moves. If it grows bigger, youve got traffic at 12 oclock, converging. Always assume the other guy is blind (now, picture Steve Wonder at the controls) and will never see you. Imagine, as motorcyclists do, that your plane is a magnet drawing in others.
Most mid-airs take place at low altitudes, and for that reason the FAA requires that every daytime aircraft come equipped with a TSOd solar-powered shadow. Most are useable up to about 2,000 agl. If you count two shadows, youre flying formation. That is regulated by FAR 91.111, and is generally discouraged between pilots who havent met. The properly installed shadow can display traffic that might otherwise be hidden in a blind spot.
All aircraft have blind spots. High wings block the view above and low wings block it below. Besides the wings, the airplane is loaded with other visibility blockers. Door posts and gear legs or giant wheel pants can block a tiny but crucial slice of air. Those AOPA stickers you put in the side glass or the compass duct-taped to the middle of your windshield blocks a minuscule piece of sky that just might hold the last plane youll ever meet.
A nose high attitude, particularly in some of the long-beaked Pipers, will block forward visibility. Get nervous any time you cant see a portion of the sky for more than a few seconds. This will be exacerbated by climbing into the sun and even more so by a dirty windshield. Make gentle S-turns in the climb and take a lower pitch when practical.
Passengers can block your view. This is particularly true in tandem aircraft where the PIC or instructor might be seated in the back. Tell passengers to shrink, move or, better yet, ask them to use their untrained eyes to look for traffic. Tell the kids that youll give a dollar to anyone who can read the registration number on a passing aircraft.
Theres a nasty phenomena of cockpits with more than one pilot on board having less than one set of eyes. When two flyers put their heads together to figure out the new GPS it leaves nobody flying the airplane. (Now, imagine Stevie Wonder with Ray Charles as co-pilot.)
The Final Analysis
It all comes down to getting your aircraft back to the hangar without hitting anyone. Most mid-airs take place within 10 nm of airports, because, to paraphrase Willy Sutton, Thats where all the airplanes are. Thats also where pilots are expected to perform at their peak, and yet its also when theyre tired and thinking about getting to the nearest bathroom. As workload increases, scanning technique suffers.
As weve seen, the lions share of traffic patterns are at non-towered airports. There, we can only trust ourselves and, frankly, were completely untrustworthy. Traffic pattern procedures are too detailed to explain here, so lets emphasize a few points to help us avoid collisions.
When following slower traffic, avoid stretching your pattern so far that other pilots dont know youre there. Be prepared to go around and fly the whole pattern again, but remember, that exposes you to new traffic, as happened in the San Jose mid-air.
In the pattern its natural to focus on our touch down point, and ignore the threat of another pilot making a non-standard pattern entry. Not everyones pattern is the same size.
As you turn your base leg look for the slower plane that might be inside you or the faster one outside. Look for shadows.
Watch for the disoriented pilot whos landing downwind or for the pilot who cant read a segmented circle and is in right traffic opposite to your left.
Or maybe, heaven forbid, its you whos goofed. Either way, expect traffic where it shouldnt be, because thats the traffic that matters the most.
Cross-runway operations are a natural breeding ground for mid-air, and mid-runway, collisions. Quincy, Ill., had a deadly encounter between a King Air and a commuter Beech Airliner in 1996. In good VFR conditions a string of seemingly innocuous mistakes from bad radio technique to pilots in a hurry led to two airplanes slamming together at the intersection of the runways.
Visibility at intersecting runways can be limited. Just because youre on the active runway according to the wind sock or Unicom operator does not mean another pilot wont be using the cross runway.
Righteousness counts for little in a mid-air. Seeing the other guy and getting out of the way is the only thing that matters.
In high altitude or low, check the airspace youre about to occupy before you turn toward it. Lift a wing. Scan the sky before you turn. Clear left? Clear right? Those werent just nerdy training exercises from your student pilot days. Theyre life savers.
Every year when I go for my flight physical, they tell me to cover my left eye and then my right and read as many of the letters I can on the chart. Every year they make the chart smaller, but I go along because I need the official piece of paper.
However, I really feel like saying, Look, Ive been flying for over 25 years and, in all that time, Ive never seen a D or a C or even a G fly past me!
A better eye test would be to take pilots out to a skeet range and fire clay pigeons at them from all directions. Depending on how many you dodge would determine your class of medical certificate and what class of airspace youd be allowed to use.
So, dont fly like a sightless clay pigeon or you could end up a smoking column in some controllers recurring nightmare.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “We Lied.”
-by Paul Berge
Paul Berge, a CFII, was recently named editor of our sister publication IFR.