A single-engine Cessna pilot flying a five-mile final approach to the airport’s Runway 23 caught sight of a paraglider crossing in front of the airplane, headed away from the airport—or was it?
As the airplane drew closer, the situation got dicey.
From one mile-and-a-half out, “I could see I would pass to the left of the paraglider but his distance from my approach course was no longer increasing as it had been moments before,” the pilot wrote.
“As I passed the paraglider I then saw that the paraglider was traveling in the same direction, not opposite as I had thought, to my flight path and slightly converging. I passed within 400-500 ft to the left and 100 ft below the paraglider before it occurred to me that the paraglider could have been on his own approach to the airport,” the 1,170-hour instrument-rated commercial pilot wrote in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System.
Dusky conditions made it difficult to determine the paraglider’s direction of flight, the pilot noted. A better course of action would have been to discontinue the approach, deviate away from the opposing aircraft—which may have been flying its own final approach; the airplane pilot never found out—and enter an upwind leg of the airport’s right-hand traffic pattern.
Most student pilots can recite the general idea of 14 CFR 91.113, the regulation that sets forth the who-gives-way-to-whom hierarchy of air traffic right-of-way procedures; they know the regulation prohibits passing “over, under, or ahead of” an aircraft with the right of way “unless well clear.”
Those who fly at airports where helicopters or gliders are active can usually tell you from experience how the various categories of aircraft typically interact.
Maintaining see-and-avoid safety can demand more of you than reciting a regulation, however. Poor lighting, low sun, or lack of relative motion can deceive; an airplane pilot may not know what speed or traffic-pattern dimensions to expect from of an unfamiliar kind of aircraft.
In the scenario above, which ASRS characterized as a near-midair collision, the airplane pilot made several assessments of the traffic separation but never got it right—even when overtaking and passing an aircraft that appeared to have the right of way.