The recent midair collision between a Cessna 180 and a 172 near Longmont, Colo., was another reminder of a fear that’s rarely far from our minds. Most pilots with any kind of experience pay a great deal of attention to scanning for traffic, listening to position reports on the CTAF or traffic calls from ATC (or both at once), and minding the warnings of an electronic alert system if they happen to have one on board. Most are also painfully aware of how often they fail to spot traffic even with the benefit of human or automated guidance. That helplessness is expressed in the phrasing of the classic principle of “big sky, little airplane”: Despite our best efforts, we chiefly trust to luck that nobody else will be close enough to hit.
It’s interesting that midair collisions exert such a hold on aviation’s collective imagination, because their share of the overall GA accident record is almost negligible. A typical year sees seven or eight of them; in the decade from 2001 through 2010, midairs claimed a total of 158 aircraft. This is barely one percent of all that were damaged or destroyed in reportable accidents during that time, and less than half a percent of all the aircraft that were damaged seriously enough to warrant an insurance claim. Contrary to intuition, midairs aren’t even the most dangerous kind of accident; in more than 40 percent, everyone on both aircraft survive. Near 60-percent lethality is bad, but it doesn’t approach the 85 percent fatality rate of accidents caused by attempting VFR flight into IMC—and there have been four times as many of those.
It seems fair to guess that much of the dread stems from the fact that unlike most other kinds of accidents, midairs aren’t just unexpected; they’re almost entirely beyond a pilot’s control. You can decide to stay on the ground if the engine doesn’t sound right or you don’t like the weather; you can turn around and land if the weather gets worse once you’re up. If the landing doesn’t seem to be setting up well, you can usually decide to go around. (If not, you probably waited too long.) Even in-flight engine failures usually leave a little time to look for the least inhospitable spot for the forced landing.
Midairs are different. You don’t need to be fat, dumb, or even particularly happy to suddenly find another aircraft sharing your space. Maybe you’ll catch sight of it in those last couple of seconds before impact, but many survivors say they never did. No wonder we worry. Even experience doesn’t help as much as we’d like. The surviving pilot in the Longmont crash was an FAA examiner, and sure enough, she never saw what hit her. She told investigators that after a loud bang, her airplane pitched up 50 degrees and rolled into a 45-degree right bank. That prospect could give almost anyone nightmares.
Another aspect of the Longmont crash also deserves some notice. The two victims were a 30-year-old CFI and a 64-year-old private pilot. It turns out that while instructional flights suffer fewer accidents than flights for most other purposes, and midairs are generally few and far between, a disproportionate number of fatal midairs occur in flight training. Training flights accounted for just 7 percent of all fatal accidents, but these included 26 percent of fatal midairs—and midair collisions that involve training flights are 50 percent more likely to be fatal than those that don’t.
Why? Good question! Exposure is probably part of the answer. Primary and commercial students spend a lot of time in the traffic pattern, where at least half of all midairs take place. Busy practice areas also contribute to the risk, and distraction almost certainly plays a part. Most student pilots haven’t yet developed the ability to divert much attention from operating the aircraft to anything else, while instructors have to devote much of their attention to watching the student. Commercial candidates are likewise apt to focus more on perfecting maneuvers than looking outside, and of course instrument students aren’t looking outside at all. All this attention to what’s happening inside the cockpit can also make it easier to miss or misinterpret other pilots’ radio calls. As for the increased lethality of collisions in training aircraft, relatively few CFIs have much real-world experience in managing damaged or compromised aircraft, particularly if the damage involves the flight controls. The small size and advanced age of much of the training fleet may also come into play.
There are a few precautions operators can take beyond teaching good scanning and traffic-pattern practices. Instructors who work for the same school, and even competitors who share the same practice areas, could voluntarily agree to establish well-defined reporting points and use an air-to-air frequency that doesn’t clutter the CTAF. This might at least help avoid accidents like the Florida collision between two Cessna 172s circling the same radio tower, the Arizona collision between a Cessna and a Piper while both practiced instrument procedures, or the California head-on between a Cessna 152 and a 172 doing ground reference maneuvers over the same jetty. The California crash was particularly notable because both instructors and both aircraft were from the same flight school. By all evidence, they weren’t talking to each other.