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How to Avoid a Mid-Air Collision

How to Avoid a Midair Collision, June 2017As air traffic density and aircraft closing speeds continue to increase, the potential for mid-air collisions also goes up. Let’s take a look at mid-air collisions, and more importantly, how to avoid them.

It has been estimated that the human eye takes in up to 80 percent of our total information. Pilots, more than many other professions, depend on their eyes to provide much of the basic information needed during flight: altitude, speed, direction, and proximity to things, from the ground to opposing air traffic.

A basic understanding of the limitation of the eyes in target detection is probably the best insurance a pilot can have against running into another airplane.

Understanding limitations of the eyes

The eyes, and consequently our vision, are vulnerable to just about everything, from dust and germs, to fatigue and the atmosphere. Usually when we get tired, the first thing we do is rub our eyes. In flight, vision is altered by atmospheric conditions, including windshield distortion, too much (or too little) oxygen, acceleration, glare, heat, lighting, aircraft design and more.

Most of all, the eye is vulnerable to the vagaries of the mind. We can "see" and identify only what the mind lets us see. So even with 20/20 vision, a daydreaming pilot staring out into space may not see approaching traffic and is probably the number one candidate for an in-flight collision.

What causes mid-air collisions?

Undoubtedly, increasing traffic and higher closing speeds represent potential. For instance, a jet and a light twin have a closing speed of about 750 mph, and it takes a minimum of 10 seconds for a pilot to spot traffic, identify it, realize it is a collision threat, react, and have the aircraft respond, according to the FAA. But two planes converging at 750 mph will be less than 10 seconds apart when the pilots are first to detect each other!

So, what causes in-flight collisions? The most common reason, statistically, "failure of pilot to see other aircraft," which means that the see-and-avoid system broke down somewhere. In most cases, at least one of the pilots involved could have seen the other in time to avoid contact, if he or she had just been using their visual senses properly. Again, reiterating the importance of good eyesight.

Patterns of mid-air collisions

Studies of mid-air collisions reveal certain definite warning patterns. It may be surprising to learn that nearly all mid-air collisions occur during daylight hours and in VFR conditions. Perhaps not so surprising is that the majority happen within five miles of an airport, in the areas of greatest traffic concentration, and usually on warm weekend afternoons when more pilots are doing more flying. (Be sure to also read BAC’s Summer Flying Safety Review.)

Also surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the closing speed (rate at which two aircraft come together) is relatively slow — usually much slower than the airspeed of either aircraft. In fact, the majority of in-flight collisions are the result of a faster aircraft overtaking and hitting a slower plane.

Are inexperienced pilots more likely to be involved in a mid-air collision than an older, more experienced pilot? A beginning pilot has so much to think about he may forget to look around. But on the other hand, the older pilot, having flown many uneventful flights without spotting any hazardous traffic, may grow complacent and forget to scan. No pilot is invulnerable.

Let’s take a look at what you can do to help avoid a mid-air collision.

Collision avoidance checklist

Collision avoidance involves much more than good eyesight and conscientious scanning — you can be the most careful pilot in the world, and still have an in-flight collision if you neglect other important factors in the overall see-and-avoid picture. "Scan" yourself first.

Aviation safety starts with a good and honest check of your own condition. Your eyesight, and consequently your safety, depends on your mental and physical condition. Make sure you are well rested and in a good frame of mind before flying.

Plan and prepare ahead

Plan your flight well ahead of time. Have charts folded in proper sequence and within handy reach, keep your cockpit free of clutter, and be familiar with headings, frequencies, distances, etc.

Make sure windows are clean

Sounds simple, and it is. During the walk-around, make sure your windshield and other windows are clean, and keep all windows clear of obstructions, like solid sun visors and curtains.

Don’t deviate from SOP

Adhere to standard operating procedures and observe the regulations of flight, such as correct altitudes and proper pattern practices, unless faced with a safety-related emergency situation.

Avoid crowded airspaces

Avoid crowded airspace en route, such as directly over a VOR. Pass over airports at a safe altitude, being particularly careful within a 25-mile radius of busy civil fields and military airports, which have a high concentration of fast-moving jet traffic that extends to 2,500 feet above the surface.

Know your blindspots

All planes have blind spots, so know where they are in your aircraft. For example, a high wing aircraft that has a wing down in a turn blocks the area you are turning into. One other scenario with high collision potential is a faster low-wing plane overtaking and descending on a high wing on final approach.

Equip for safety

Your airplane can, in fact, help avoid collisions. Certain equipment that was once priced way above the light plane owner’s reach, now is available at reasonable cost to all aviation segments, such as high intensity strobe lights and transponders.

Speak up and listen

When approaching an airport, use your radio, as well as your eyes. If you are operating close enough to the airport in terms of altitude and location to be near traffic going to or from that airport, consider making a call to state your position, altitude and intentions.

Scan, scan, scan!

Above all else, pay attention, look where you’re going, and scan for traffic. If you adhere to SOP, keep yourself and your plane in good condition, and develop an effective scan time-sharing system, you should have no trouble avoiding in-flight collisions.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aviation Safety Program

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