A Cessna 340, apparently making a low-altitude, high-speed pass over the runway at Watsonville, Calif., catches up to and collides with a Cessna 152 on final approach, killing four. A Piper Meridian overshoots the turn to final for Runway 30L at North Las Vegas and flies into a Cessna 172 on final for 30R, also killing four people. A Boeing Stearman lands on top of another Stearman during a passenger-hopping event at a grass field in Virginia, putting the pilots and passengers of both airplanes at risk.
Perhaps it’s the seemingly uncontrolled nature of mid-air collisions, both before and after colliding, that makes them one of the greatest fears among pilots. Most discussions of collision avoidance center on the rules for flying a visual traffic pattern. Knowing and following the rules is vital. But these recent accidents and many more like them demonstrate it’s not enough to review the regulations and best practices, then admonish pilots who deviate from the rules either by accident, by unintentional error or by wanton violation. It’s up to us all to raise our defensive shields with techniques not only to see and avoid compliant pilots, but also to expect and deconflict from those who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, intentionally or not.
KNOW THE THREAT
I was in the right seat of a Beech Bonanza, instructing its experienced owner. We were making multiple full-stop landings at a non-towered airport, practicing various landing and takeoff techniques, clearing the runway after each touchdown to taxi back and quickly debrief the landing. Then we ran checklists and briefed the next takeoff. On one circuit, we had just lifted off when the crew of a corporate jet radioed on the CTAF they were taxiing out for departure on the single runway. As my student turned onto downwind, I pointed out the large jet turning from the ramp to begin its taxi to the runway.
Knowing that the typical jet crew departing a non-towered airport will be on ATC’s clearance delivery frequency, and that the crew may or may not be monitoring CTAF during this time—and may not even check it again before taking off—I reminded my student they might not hear our traffic calls and know we were in the pattern. We reached a point abeam our touchdown zone and the pilot extended the landing gear.
The jet was almost to the end of the taxiway. We turned base and then final, making the appropriate radio calls, as the jet turned 90 degrees and silently approached the hold short line. “He may not stop. Be ready to go around,” I advised my student.
Sure enough, the jet continued onto the runway without stopping, and then began its takeoff roll. “Go around,” I commanded, but my student had already decided so himself. “Offset to the right of the runway,” I instructed, and the pilot complied. Had we continued the go-around over the runway as is usually taught and done, the jet would have just about reached our altitude as we both climbed out. (See the sidebar, “The Lost Sidestep Maneuver,” on page 6.)
Another training flight, this time in a Baron. We were making takeoffs and landings at a quiet tower-controlled airport. This was when flying traditional dive-and-drive approaches was still in vogue. A Cessna Citation training flight was straight-in on a non-precision approach to Runway 4. We were making left traffic for Runway 31.
Just after we lifted off, I heard the Citation report inbound at the final approach fix. I knew that to be about six miles from the airport. As we turned downwind, I advised my Baron student that the jet should fly beneath us on our downwind; the minimum descent altitude (MDA) for the jet’s approach was about 500 feet below pattern height and the missed approach point was near the center of the airport. The tower called the jet as traffic and stated the same about it flying beneath us. I called the Citation trainer in sight, ahead and over our right engine cowling.
But the jet crew made what was a common error in the days of dive-and-drive approaches: Instead of leveling off at MDA and flying level until reaching the missed approach point, the pilots began flying the miss as soon as they reached MDA. Suddenly the bizjet that was going to slide beneath us began climbing straight toward us. I rapidly took the controls and made a hard right, climbing turn to get out of the Citation’s flight path. The jet crew never altered its climbout. The tower controller was only slightly happier than my student and I, and knowing the Citation was on an instructional flight, he radioed the instructor and gave him a phone number to call.
My students and I avoided collisions in both those events because I was watching closely to see if the other airplanes were doing what they were supposed to do. I anticipated they might do otherwise and directed (or took) action immediately when I realized they were not. When the other guy (or gal) violates the rules and good operating practices of traffic patterns, success rides on your ability to see them even before they deviate so you can detect a collision threat right away. What are some strategies you might use to raise your defensive shields and avoid mid-air collisions?
See the big picture. “Back in the day” before moving maps, pilots (especially instrument-rated pilots) needed to be able to develop a three-dimensional mental picture of where the airplane was in space and their relationship to other airplanes in the area. Seeing how you fit into the larger scheme was a skill that took time and practice. You tracked your location with navigation beams and, if you could see it, the ground; you envisioned other airplanes by listening to their reports on the frequency and an occasional traffic callout from a controller. I applaud the modern combination of GPS, moving maps and ADS-B (knowing not all airplanes are ADS-B or even transponder equipped). But even with all this capability, it takes work to turn the two-dimensional panel pictures into a three- or even four-dimensional (where things will be over time) mental image of the airspace and your place in it. If you make the effort to hone this skill, in visual conditions as well as IMC, you stand a better chance of anticipating what other pilots might do besides they are expected to do.
IN THE PATTERN
In the VFR traffic pattern, we tend to focus our attention on the runway, since it’s our intended target, and almost everything we do in the pattern is done in relationship to it. But until we’re almost on the ground ourselves, the runway is not the mid-air collision threat. On downwind, look at your position relative to the runway, but force yourself to look out over the runway, on the final approach course and ahead of yourself in the pattern as well. While making the turn from downwind to base, when it’s natural to look at the end of the runway to judge your turn, consciously check the rest of the pattern as well, especially the straight-in final.
Pilots who fly with me know I check and say this aloud: “The final approach course is clear, the backwards base is clear, the runway is clear…I’m clear to land.” By “backwards base” I mean looking for the non-compliant pilot who is flying right traffic at an airport where left traffic is prescribed, or vice versa. At tower-controlled airports, you may have aircraft on left base and right base at the same time, if the spacing is right. Be in the habit to check in any event. Once on final, double-check that the runway is clear, but also scan the taxiways and ramps for other aircraft on the move or at the hold line, and everywhere for helicopters that may be in hover taxi or ready to depart. Only once you enter your flare can you devote most of your attention straight ahead to the airspace over the runway.
READY FOR TAKEOFF
When you’re ready for takeoff and before you taxi onto the runway, make another deliberate look for other airplanes. I look and say aloud, “The final approach is clear, the base leg is clear, I’m clear to take off.” I make this check even at a tower-controlled airport…most aircraft collisions at or near airports happen at non-towered airports, but not all of them.
When I first learned to fly, it was normal to make a tight, 360-degree turn on the taxiway or on the run-up pad to scan for traffic all around before venturing onto the runway (It still is! — Ed.). This helps you catch the pilot in the non-standard pattern, too. I did this pivot religiously when I flew a no-radio Cessna 120. I taught students to do this as a young instructor. Perhaps I should start doing it again.
Here’s another peeve: Do not taxi into position and hold/line up and wait at non-towered airports. That leaves you stationary—and harder to see—with your back to any traffic. If you’ll have any delay, hold short of the runway until you’re ready to go. If you taxi out and then find something that will cause a delay, taxi clear and deal with it. The FAA provides no guidance on this at non-towered airports, but it seems like good practice to avoid making yourself a target.
More strategies for protecting yourself against pattern-compliant and non-compliant pilots:
See And Be Seen: Turn on all your lights and strobes when in the vicinity of an airport. Flashing lights in particular attract attention. Lights may not all be visible on a bright day, but get in the habit and you won’t forget on a cloudy day when it might make a difference.
Hear And Be Heard: Make and listen for standard callouts near airports and in the pattern. Be precise with your location and concise with the information you provide. Don’t tie up the frequency with rambling radio calls, either—make sure everyone listening can understand where you are and what you’re doing. If you’ve not arranged a rental car or passenger pickup before takeoff, it can wait until after you land. Leave the CTAF for its primary use: traffic reporting and awareness.
Remember also that at non-towered airports (and in some cases, tower-controlled airports) there may be some aircraft operating perfectly legally without a radio. And it’s far from “unheard” of for a pilot to have dialed in the wrong frequency and inadvertently removed him/herself from radio participation. So although you should actively listen as well as broadcast, don’t assume that not hearing someone on the radio means no other aircraft are nearby. Keep a sharp eye outside.
Do What’s Expected: You naturally look for other airplanes where you’d expect to see them in the traffic pattern. Defend yourself by doing what others expect you to do. Fly the normal pattern at the speeds normal for your airplane, making the normal radio calls. Even if Ghost Rider is blasting through a pattern that’s full, he/she is probably looking for other airplanes where they’re expected to be. Protect yourself by being there.
Don’t Argue On The Radio: Regulations and standard pattern practices define who has the right-of-way in the airport traffic pattern. Don’t argue the point on the radio if you see a conflict. It’s not a contest—but even if it was, you have to survive to win.
We’d like to think everyone will follow the rules for airport traffic patterns. Most training, articles and discussion about mid-air collisions focus on the rules, assuming that everyone will comply when presented with a critical review. Unfortunately, there are “unreachable” pilots out there who won’t get the message or will disregard it if they do. Many others may create a conflict inadvertently. Sometimes it’s valuable to assume not everyone will follow the rules. When that happens, it’s important to protect yourself and your passengers.
Tom Turner is a CFII-MEI who frequently writes and lectures on aviation safety.