Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight
Most midair collisions take place within five miles of an airport, during the day, in good weather. And most occur not with the spectacular head-on crash that many pilots envision, but rather when two aircraft converge on final.
On October 10, 2004, at approximately 4:40 p.m., a Cessna 152 and a Cessna 172 Skyhawk collided on approach to Cincinnati West Airport in Harrison, Ohio. The two aircraft became locked together in flight at 300 feet agl and spiraled into a gravel pit. The pilots and a passenger in the 172 suffered serious injuries.
Both aircraft were taking part in a spot landing contest. The pilot of the 172 took off from Runway 1 and entered a left traffic pattern. The pilot of the 152 performed a touch-and-go landing on the same runway following the Skyhawk's departure.
The pilot of the Skyhawk reported that he announced his position on the downwind, base, and final legs of the approach. He added that he only heard the 152 pilot announce his position once, on the downwind leg. While descending toward the runway on final, the Skyhawk pilot heard and felt a "thud," and the aircraft became unresponsive.
The pilot of the 152 flew an abbreviated pattern, beginning his base leg shortly after passing abeam the runway numbers on downwind. As he turned final, he saw the left wing and cockpit of the 172 and immediately felt the impact. The 152 pilot had no memory of the rest of the flight.
The Skyhawk caught fire upon ground impact. The pilot and passenger scrambled from the burning airplane and only then realized they had experienced a midair collision. They helped the dazed 152 pilot exit his aircraft.
The pilot of the Cessna 152 later reported that he did not check for other aircraft prior to turning final and only reported his position on the downwind leg. The NTSB determined that the accident was caused by the 152 pilot's improper traffic pattern procedure and improper radio communication. A factor in the accident was the failure on the part of both pilots to maintain an adequate visual lookout.
The individuals involved in this accident were fortunate to survive; most midair collisions are fatal. See-and-avoid techniques and appropriate use of the radio are critical safety practices in the congested airspace around airports. Many pilots, especially students, tend to lock onto the runway numbers on final and stop scanning for other aircraft. Unfortunately, that's just when the communication-challenged pilot flying a nonstandard pattern is likely to enter the picture.
For more information, read the Collision Avoidance: Strategies and Tactics and Operations at Nontowered Airports Safety Advisors.
An aviation technical writer with the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Carl Peterson creates interactive courses and other safety education materials for the aviation community. He has been flying since 1989.
By Carl Peterson