Pilot Counsel: Juggling communications

'See and avoid' at uncontrolled airports

March 1, 2013

John Yodice

A pilot’s legal responsibility to “see and avoid” other traffic is well understood. It is embedded in a number of the flight rules, and very specifically in FAR 91.113(b), which says, “When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.”

Here is a real-life illustration of the rule in a midair/ground collision. The collision involved an IFR aircraft just breaking ground on takeoff, after having been cleared and released to depart on an IFR clearance, and another aircraft that had landed on an intersecting runway following an IFR GPS approach in which IFR had been canceled after the pilot visually sighted the airport. Fortunately there were only minor injuries, although the aircraft were substantially damaged.

The collision occurred in daylight with winds calm, visibility 10 miles, and overcast clouds at 600 feet agl. Although both aircraft were operating at the same nontowered airport on intersecting runways, each was handled by a different controller at the same air traffic control facility. Approach, departure, and clearance delivery services were being provided through a remote communications outlet at the field.

The aircraft involved were a Piper PA–30 Twin Comanche operating on an IFR flight plan to the airport, and a Beech Bonanza A36 that had filed an IFR flight plan to depart from the airport. The Piper pilot’s initial contact with approach control was while airborne, requesting a GPS approach to the airport. About 11 minutes later the Beech pilot made his initial contact with clearance delivery, and was given his IFR clearance.

In routine fashion, the Beech, on the ground, was told to hold for release. Minutes later the Piper pilot was cleared for the approach with the usual instructions on how to cancel IFR in the air or on the ground. The Beech pilot several times confirmed to clearance delivery that he was holding next to Runway 5, ready to go. The Piper pilot announced that he had the airport in sight, cancelling IFR. Radar showed him at 700 feet msl (259 feet agl). Approach control acknowledged, “Roger, squawk VFR, frequency change approved, good night.” The Piper pilot’s acknowledgement was the last recorded transmission from the Piper. A minute after the Piper pilot cancelled his IFR, clearance delivery released the Beech for departure, with a clearance void time of five minutes. The Beech pilot switched his radio to the common traffic advisory frequency, broadcasting his position and intentions twice. The Beech pilot then began his takeoff roll. About the same time, but unbeknownst to the Beech pilot, the Piper landed on Runway 15.

According to the Piper pilot, as he approached the intersection of Runway 5/23 on his landing roll, at a speed of approximately 40 knots, he heard a noise and saw the Beech on its takeoff roll on Runway 5. According to the Beech pilot, as the airplane approached its rotation speed of 75 knots, he and his passenger saw the Piper approaching from the left. He pulled back on the yoke to try to fly over the Piper. The two collided while the Beech was airborne about six feet above the ground.

The “see and avoid” rules were certainly in effect but the circumstances were difficult. The departure area for Runway 5 and the touchdown zone for Runway 15 were separated by trees that varied in height from approximately 13 to 55 feet. The locations and heights of some of these trees were such that they may well have impeded the ability of the pilots to see one another from their respective runways. Nevertheless, the NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident to be both pilots’ failure to see and avoid the other airplane. The NTSB cited as a contributing cause ATC’s failure to notify either pilot of the potential conflict.

Pilots are aware that, to the extent practicable, radio calls are intended to supplement “see and avoid.” The FAA’s Instrument Flying Handbook says, “Flights inbound on an instrument approach to a field without a control tower should make several self-announced radio calls during the approach: Initial call within five to 10 minutes of the aircraft’s arrival at the IAF. This call should give the aircraft’s location as well as the crew’s approach intentions. FAF inbound, stating intended landing runway and maneuvering direction if circling. Short final, giving traffic on the surface notification of imminent landing.” Of course, juggling communications with approach control, and announcing the common traffic advisory frequency, could be problematic.

The facts of this accident need reporting and should be critically instructive to pilots operating at nontowered airports about their responsibilities under “see and avoid.”

John S. Yodice is the legal advisor for the AOPA Pilot Protection Services plan. He heads Yodice Associates, a Washington, D.C.-area firm specializing in aviation law.