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Midair risk low, but not dismissibleMidair risk low, but not dismissible

The fatal midair collision between a Cessna 172 and a Piper Archer on May 31 reinforced a persistent concern of instructors, students, and flight school operators alike—particularly once it was learned that both of the aircraft were on training flights. True, neither was entirely typical. The instructor in the Cessna was a project manager for a hot air balloon company and his student was the company’s president. The Cherokee was engaged in standardization training for a newly hired CFI scheduled to begin teaching the following day. Both flights departed from Deer Valley Airport, and as far as we currently know both were strictly VFR, but still didn’t see each other in the clear Arizona sky.

An earlier issue of Flight School Business pointed out that midairs are extraordinarily rare, accounting for less than one percent of all GA accidents nationwide. So does that mean that even in the face of horrific examples like the Phoenix crash, your students and instructors shouldn’t waste too much energy worrying about them? As you might have guessed, the answer is “Yes, but …”

Midairs are rare, but they’re not quite as rare during training. There were 105 total midairs nationwide between 2002 and 2011; in 22, at least one aircraft was on an instructional flight (and in four of those, both were.) So 21 percent of all midair collisions involved training flights, while by FAA estimates, flight instruction accounted for 15 percent of GA flight time during the same period. In other words, collisions are about 40 percent more likely on instructional flights than flights for other purposes.

Of course, increasing a tiny risk by 40 percent gives one that’s still pretty small, but it’s enough of a jump to merit some attention. A look at the details suggests that it spans the training environment. Of the 26 training aircraft involved, 22 were airplanes and four were helicopters. Six were engaged in primary dual instruction, six more (including one helicopter) were on student solos, and another six were doing instrument training. Three were working on fixed-wing multiengine ratings; the remaining five were practicing commercial maneuvers or conducting other (unspecified) advanced dual instruction.

Fortunately for everyone except us data analysts, these numbers are too small to reveal much in the way of patterns. The fact that nearly a quarter were on student solos (which certainly don’t make up a quarter of all training time) would tend to confirm that student pilots have less attention to spare for their traffic scans than more experienced pilots, and probably less idea of where and how to look as well. However, experience is no guarantee: The Cessna 180 destroyed in a 2003 collision with a Piper Archer was manned by two ATPs/CFIIs with more than 17,000 hours of combined flight experience, and the NTSB specifically cited their “inattentive radio communications” as a factor in causing the accident. The relatively high number during instrument training is also intuitively plausible, since the student can’t watch for traffic and the instructor usually has to keep a pretty close eye on the student’s instrument scan.

If the overall record reminds us of the limitations of “see and avoid,” other details point out the limits of ATC’s ability to help. Five of these 22 collisions occurred in the traffic patterns of towered airports while the towers were in operation. In one, having two de Havilland Beavers in the pattern at once seems to have confused everyone involved; in another, a student pilot on his fourth solo was the victim of an error by the 5,400-hour pilot of a Beech Debonair, who plunked down on top of the student’s Skyhawk after having been cleared to land on the parallel runway. And in at least three more, one aircraft was on an active IFR flight plan. One took place after the pilot had been cleared to the local advisory frequency; in another, traffic alerts weren’t enough to help him find that traffic before it hit him. No alerts were ever issued in the third—even though ATC had assigned the IFR aircraft a heading that put it on a direct collision course with an airplane that had already left the frequency.

It’s probably not wise to suggest that student pilots pay less attention to flying their aircraft, but there’s little harm in reminding your instructors that they bear most of the responsibility for avoiding potential conflicts. The chance of a midair doesn’t justify losing sleep, but it’s enough to warrant some vigilance. Low risk isn’t no risk.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

Manager, Safety Analysis
David Jack Kenny analyzes GA accident data to target ASI’s safety education programs while also supporting AOPA’s ongoing initiatives and assisting other departments in responding to breaking developments. David maintains ASI’s accident database and regularly writes articles for ePilot, Flight School Business, Flight Training, CFI-to-CFI, and other publications.

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