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Avoiding Midair CollisionsAvoiding Midair Collisions

You can keep from being involved in one of these infrequent accidents

By Alton K. Marsh

When you scan for other traffic, do you find yourself most often looking straight ahead with occasional glances to the left and right? If so, you're guarding against only 5 percent of the most common midair collision scenarios. Eighty-two percent occur from the rear, according to information provided by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF).

Collisions continue at a steady rate

Midair collisions have continued at a steady rate in the past 18 years, statistics show. Most years such accidents number in the teens, but occasionally the number reaches the lower to mid-20s. There were 19 midair collisions in 2000, and 11 of those involved fatalities.

The definition of the collision problem has expanded recently to include runway incursions, and has led to new safety efforts. ASF has placed a runway-incursion training program on AOPA Online. Among the foundation's publications is the Collision Avoidance: Strategies and Tactics Safety Advisor that can be viewed or ordered on ASF's Web site. Many of the tips in this article are taken from that ASF collision avoidance pamphlet.

Approach and landing a dangerous time

ASF data indicate that 45 percent of collisions occur in the traffic pattern, and of these, two-thirds occur during approach and landing when aircraft are on final or over the runway. Confusion about the location of aircraft and their landing order often begins earlier in the pattern. As you might expect, operations at nontowered airports offer the greatest risk. You can download ASF's Operations at Nontowered Airports Safety Advisor (PDF, 741KB).

These procedures can help you avoid problems at nontowered airports:

  • Tune and verify radio frequencies before you enter the airport traffic area.
  • If you are working with approach control prior to reaching the airport, monitor the common traffic advisory frequency on your second radio.
  • Report your position 10 miles out and listen for reports from other inbound traffic. Report entering downwind, turning downwind to base, and base to final.
  • Identify the airport at the beginning and end of the transmission.
  • If you are unsure about the location of another aircraft on the frequency, ask.
  • Remember that there may be aircraft in the pattern without radios.
  • Slow down. Slower speeds allow more reaction time.
  • Check behind and below you at least once on final.
  • Report your position outbound, and be aware that most pilots omit position reports after departure.
  • If conducting an instrument approach, report distance in miles rather than navigation fixes.

Runway incursions a growing problem

Some of the more serious ground collisions have occurred at nontowered airports, but mistakes occur as well at towered airports that have a confusing array of taxiways. ASF has placed taxiway diagrams on AOPA Online to help pilots avoid entering an active runway by mistake. Here are some tips from ASF to help pilots avoid runway incursions:

  • Review the taxi route prior to arriving or departing.
  • Listen carefully to instructions for any changes in the expected route.
  • Read back all taxi instructions.
  • Acquire airport diagrams for unfamiliar airports.
  • If in doubt, ask for progressive taxi instructions.
  • Look for traffic before taking the runway, and ensure that there is no conflicting ground traffic before beginning the takeoff.
  • At nontowered airports with intersecting runways, check for traffic on the crossing runway when landing or taking off.
  • At airports with parallel runways, be aware of the potential confusion created by "left" and "right" runways.
  • Be familiar with all relevant taxiway and runway signage. You'll find illustrations in Chapter 2 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).

AIM a good source of information

Do you know how to tell if an aircraft is at your altitude? The AIM suggests using the horizon as a reference point. If the other aircraft is on the horizon, then it is probably at your altitude. If it is higher, then it is above you, while aircraft seen below the horizon are below you.

Any aircraft that appears to have no relative motion and stays in one spot on your windscreen is likely to be on a collision course. If a target shows no lateral or vertical motion and increases in size, take evasive action.

Recognize hazardous areas

Aircraft tend to cluster on airways, at VORs, and in Class B, Class C, Class D, and Class E airspace. Most collisions occur in good visibility, the AIM warns. Don't relax just because the skies are crystal clear.

Pilots need to move their heads to see around blind spots caused by fixed aircraft structures, such as doorposts and wings. Banking from time to time can uncover blind spots. The AIM also advises the use of exterior lights to improve your chances of being seen in hazardous areas.

Air traffic control facilities provide radar traffic advisories on a workload-permitting basis. Use this support whenever possible. Even if a controller is too busy to provide advisories, listening to the appropriate frequency can provide a mental picture of traffic in the area.

Reporting a near miss

If you have a close call, reporting your experience might lead to improvements in the system. When in communication with a controller, report the incident immediately. A report will be entered in the FAA's Near Midair Collision (NMAC) reporting program. A near midair collision is defined as either an incident in which aircraft are less than 500 feet apart, or any incident during which a pilot or a flight-crewmember feels that a hazard existed. Be specific in your transmission to controllers, as ATC will not interpret a casual remark as an official report. The pilot should state, "I wish to report a near midair collision." You may also make a report by telephone to the nearest flight service station. Or you can wait until after the flight and write to the nearest flight standards district office.

Another reporting program

You can also use the FAA's voluntary Aviation Safety Reporting System — operated by NASA — to report a near miss. The program is designed to correct unsafe conditions before they lead to accidents. Official forms and more information are available on AOPA Online.

Keep the scan going

There are two basic methods for scanning the skies. One is to turn your head to the left and scan to the right, stopping eight or nine times to allow your eyes to focus. Another is to start at the center of the windscreen and scan outward, first in one direction and then the other. It's called a block system and is designed to divide your viewing area into segments. Help your fellow pilots to see you — especially when flying in congested airspace — by turning on a landing or taxi light. You may lose 30 minutes from the life of the bulb, but gain 30 years of life for yourself.

There will be competition for your attention, especially in the era of the message-happy, button-festooned GPS receiver. Don't let distractions stop the scan. Cockpit duties, scenery, or confusion can invite complacency into the cockpit, whether in the air or on the ground. Your increased awareness of collision dangers can invite it to leave.

And don't forget the occasional backward glance. Limber up those necks, since statistics show that the greatest threat is from behind. Hopefully, this article has you looking over your shoulder.

Alton K. Marsh holds airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He is a senior editor for AOPA Pilot magazine.

Common accident scenarios: Collision avoidance

  • Low-wing aircraft converging with a high-wing aircraft
  • One aircraft overtaking another
  • Collision on final approach at a nontowered airport resulting from loss of situational awareness
  • Formation flying and air-to-air photography
  • Complacency while en route
  • Mistakenly taxiing onto an active runway

A Fight to Survive

Pilot saves himself and his passenger following a midair collision

Surviving pilots of a midair last November over Houston have several tips that can help you survive a catastrophic emergency. Unfortunately, a Houston-area pilot died in the accident after his Cessna 152 and a Cessna 172 collided above Interstate 10 on Houston's west side.

Aboard the 172 were aircraft owner Ed Oppermann and pilot Diana Orendorff. Oppermann was asleep in the right front seat as Orendorff cruised at 1,900 feet above the ground.

Orendorff said she was able to avoid becoming a casualty thanks to her habit of constant scanning over a wide arc. That's how she saw a Cessna 152 approaching from behind her left shoulder and headed for her door, giving her just enough time to pull up and bank away, limiting the damage that resulted from the collision. Still, the impact tore off the right main landing gear of the 172 and severed a portion of the right wing, bending downward a large chunk of the wing tip and causing life-threatening drag.

Oppermann, awakened by a bump and a sudden change in aircraft attitude, remembers seeing trees that appeared to be spinning in the windscreen. Then he saw the collapsed wing tip: He grabbed the controls. The Houston-area dentist said that he felt anger at the thought of dying, and the anger kept him focused.

"I thought more about what not to do than what to do. I knew I shouldn't stall, and that if I reached an airport, I shouldn't land short," he said. "I felt like I wasn't going to live through it."

It took two clockwise spins and a half-turn counterclockwise spin before Oppermann could get the plane under control — at 400 feet. Two hunters below videotaped only a portion of the spin before putting away the camera and running toward what they suspected would be the crash scene.

At first Oppermann planned to land in a plowed field directly below. Then he saw that the right gear was missing, and knew the results would be fatal as the left gear snagged in the furrows.

There were several reasons that he was able to avoid panicking, aside from anger. After getting his certificate (he now has 600 hours' total flight time), he had insisted on getting comfortable with flying from the right seat. He had also practiced stalls often and felt comfortable in unusual attitudes, thanks to his "air combat" fun flights at Texas Air Aces at David Wayne Hooks Memorial Airport, northwest of Houston. Also, a friend had shown him loops and spins in a Decathlon aerobatic aircraft.

He needed full throttle to maintain level flight at 90 knots but couldn't turn left. "It was like dancing on marbles," Oppermann recalled. He applied full left aileron and full left rudder and navigated along a right arc toward West Houston Airport. Approaching the runway, his prediction of the outcome changed from certain death to serious injury.

"This will be the best d— landing I have ever made," Oppermann promised his friend. After the left gear touched down and the right wing contacted the runway, the airplane left the runway, slid through two shallow ditches, and returned to a taxiway where it came to a safe stop. Neither pilot was injured.

Both pilots have dedicated themselves since the accident to improving safety. Oppermann now is researching possible improvements to the present cruising-altitude rules — some of them proposed many years ago — that he feels would reduce the possibility of midair collisions.

Orendorff has begun speaking at safety meetings on how to avoid midair accidents. Among her concerns are yoke-mounted GPS receivers that draw a pilot's attention away from the windscreen. Both pilots have become soldiers in the war against accidents. — AKM

Safety strategies

  • Plan your flight so that you don't have to look up en route and destination information or program a GPS while airborne.
  • Clean your windshield, make S-turns during a climb to improve forward visibility, and use a cruise climb airspeed for a better view over the nose.
  • Enlist passengers' help in scanning for traffic.
  • Use aircraft lights to improve visibility to other pilots and use the landing light on approach, departure, and climbout.
  • Use sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays and improve visibility through haze, but be aware that polarized sunglasses may block the glint of sunlight off other aircraft.
  • Communicate with radar approach controllers when possible, and announce your position starting 10 miles out at nontowered airports.
  • Become a target by installing a transponder if your aircraft doesn't have one and squawk altitude (Mode C) when in flight.
  • Scan for traffic, remembering that most accidents involve one aircraft overtaking another.

— From the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Collision Avoidance Safety Advisor.

Click the link to download the Collision Avoidance Safety Advisor (PDF, 572KB)