Faithful readers of this column recognize that over many years I have reviewed for pilots and aircraft owners the general operating and flight rules of the federal aviation regulations. I usually have reviewed each rule independently, only incidentally noting that many of them are an important supplement to the “see-and-avoid” concept so basic to operation in our airspace system. What brings me to this now is a recently issued alert by the NTSB that has the attention-getting title of “See and Be Seen: Your Life Depends on It.”
This NTSB alert causes me to note that the gradual growth of technology has led to glass cockpits, moving maps, traffic displays, the advent of ADS-B/NextGen, and even ATC flight following—all welcome aids to “see and avoid,” but they induce the temptation to become complacent and more head-down in the cockpit. This is a particular problem for general aviation. Yet, even in our busiest terminal airspace where the most sophisticated ATC system in the world is separating traffic, it is routine to use visual separation and visual approaches when weather permits, which is most of the time. These procedures are nothing more than “see and avoid.”
The NTSB alert cites four GA accidents illustrating the tragic results of failing to maintain a sufficient lookout.
“In January 2015, two Piper PA–18s collided near Wasilla, Alaska, while conducting cross-country flights. The commercial pilots of each airplane sustained serious injuries. A ground witness indicated that the airplanes were converging at a 90-degree right angle and that neither airplane changed altitude or direction as they approached one another.
“In September 2014, a Cessna 172 and an amateur-built Searey collided near Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport, Lancaster, New York, while participating in a fly-in event. The commercial pilot and passenger of the Cessna 172 died; the private pilot and passenger of the Searey were not injured. Both airplanes were traveling westbound with the Cessna behind the Searey. The Cessna was traveling about 90 knots and was gradually descending, and the Searey was traveling about 70 knots and was gradually climbing when the Cessna overtook it.
“In March 2012, a Cessna 172 and a Cessna 180 collided near Longmont, Colorado, about 7,200 feet msl. The private pilot and instructor in the Cessna 172 died, and the pilot of the Cessna 180 sustained minor injuries. The Cessna 172 was in level flight on a north-northeast course, and the Cessna 180 was in a gradual climb on a northerly course. The pilots were not in contact with ATC at the time of the accident, and neither pilot maintained adequate visual lookout for the other airplane.
“In July 2011, a Cessna 180 and a Cessna 206 collided at 900 feet agl near Talkeetna, Alaska. The ATP pilot of the Cessna 206 was not injured; the private pilot and three passengers of the Cessna 180 died. The pilots were monitoring different radio frequencies and failed to see and avoid the other airplane as each was approaching Amber Lake on the left downwind.”
This is a good time to look at the regulatory framework that establishes the fundamental method of keeping aircraft from colliding with each other. The specific regulatory requirement to see and avoid is contained 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.”
Then there are more specific operating and flight rules that have been covered from time to time in this column, all designed to supplement and enhance this general requirement. I will keep those reviews coming.
Here are some examples of these supplementing rules, published in AOPA Pilot: FAR 91.113 sets out right-of-way rules for near air traffic operating close by (October 2006). FAR 91.159 specifies VFR cruising altitudes providing some measure of vertical separation of air traffic (February 2008). FAR 91.121 requires the use of common altimeter settings to help in that separation, including under IFR. FAR 91.209 requires lighted position lights and anticollision lights during periods of darkness (September 2011). FAR 91.117 prescribes aircraft speed limits. FAR 91.111 prohibits operating so closely to another aircraft so as to create a collision hazard (prearranged formation flying excepted). The rules prescribing VFR weather minima, FAR 91.155 and 157, are obvious supplemental rules (June and July 2013).
So, with thanks to the NTSB, pilots are reminded to exercise vigilance to see and avoid other traffic, and to appreciate and abide by the operating and flight rules that help us do that.
John S. Yodice is a legal counsel for AOPA members through the AOPA Pilot Protection Services program.