With the flying season entering full swing, the traffic pattern is apt to be a much busier place than it was just a couple of months ago. Keeping a safe distance from our fellow aviators requires heightened vigilance and close attention to radio communications, especially at nontowered airports. Most midair collisions take place within five miles of an airport, during the day, in visual meteorological conditions. And most occur not with the spectacular head-on crash that many pilots envision, but rather with a sickening thud and subsequent loss of control—as when two aircraft converge on final.
On Oct. 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 Cessna 172 suffered serious injuries.
Both aircraft were performing traffic pattern operations in the moments leading up to the accident. The pilot of the Cessna 172 took off from Runway 01 and entered a left traffic pattern. The pilot of the Cessna 152 performed a touch-and-go landing on the same runway following the Skyhawk’s departure. The Skyhawk pilot stated that he saw the Cessna 152 take off and believed the aircraft was well behind him in the pattern.
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 Cessna 152 pilot announce his position once, on the downwind leg. The Skyhawk pilot turned onto final approach at 400 feet agl, extended 30 degrees of flaps, and reduced his airspeed. While descending toward the runway, the pilot heard and felt a “thud,” and the aircraft became unresponsive.
The pilot of the Cessna 152, who did not recall hearing any transmissions on the CTAF frequency, flew an abbreviated pattern, beginning his base leg shortly after passing abeam the runway numbers on downwind. As he turned final at about 300 feet agl and a quarter mile from the runway, he saw the left wing and cockpit of the Cessna 172 and immediately felt the impact. The Cessna 152 pilot had no memory of the rest of the flight.
According to witnesses, the two aircraft became locked together in flight and began a slow spiraling descent. This aerial pirouette ended when the conjoined Cessnas struck the ground inside a gravel pit, causing the Skyhawk to catch fire. The pilot and passenger scrambled from the burning airplane and only then realized they had experienced a midair collision. They helped the dazed Cessna 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 Cessna 152 pilot’s improper traffic pattern procedure and improper radio communication, which resulted in a midair collision with the Skyhawk. A factor in the accident was the failure on the part of both pilots to maintain an adequate visual lookout.
The pilots and passenger involved in this accident were fortunate to survive. Most midair collisions are fatal. See-and-avoid techniques and appropriate use of the radio are important aspects of flying—and they become critical safety practices in the congested airspace around airports. For pilots operating at nontowered airfields, the Aeronautical Information Manual recommends that position reports be made on downwind, base, and final approach. The flip side of making these radio calls is listening for the position reports of other aircraft in the pattern so we know where to expect traffic.
And once we know what to expect, it’s important to be ready for the unexpected. Never stop scanning for other aircraft, especially on final. Although it’s tempting to lock onto those runway numbers and create a visual tunnel to touchdown, that’s just when the communication-challenged pilot flying a nonstandard pattern is likely to enter the picture—often with a sickening thud.