Midair Collision? You bet your life.


The near mid-air collision between a jumbo jet and a light aircraft near San Francisco International Airport last week should be a wake-up call for the FAA and passengers alike. Sadly, it wasn’t for either–and so the imminent risk of a midair collision remains.

Sweep aside the usual hot-button issues of “free access to the skies” and other light aircraft lobby specialties. Here’s the bottom line: slow, light aircraft with hobbyists at the controls mixing with high-speed, heavy jet traffic promises disaster.

144 people died in the worst air disaster in California history When PSA flight 182 collided with a Cessna 172 and crashed into North Park.

A major risk is the overly simplistic rules of separation between aircraft: see and avoid.  That’s it.

When a jetliner is in the airport traffic pattern either taking off or landing, often controllers are able to use “visual separation” rules. That is, if the visibility is deemed minimally adequate, an air traffic controller can issue a traffic warning that holds a pilot responsible for avoiding another aircraft if the pilot can confirm that they have visual contact with the aircraft being pointed out.

There’s the roots of a disaster that will happen: when there are multiple aircraft in question, it’s very difficult to be sure as a pilot that you are looking at the one the controller is trying to point out.

Radar snapshot of the Atlanta Airport Terminal Area.

If you are looking at the wrong aircraft–and there are many at all points of the compass and at various altitudes–you cannot assure the clearance you just promised to maintain.

According to a recent study produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, air traffic at major hubs has increased exponentially in the past ten years. And even after 30+ years and over 17,000 flight hours, I find myself more often than ever when given a “see and avoid” clearance, telling air traffic controllers, unable to accept that clearance– I do not have visual contact with that aircraft.

Why?

Because with the multiple targets (i.e., other aircraft large and small) in the terminal area, I won’t gamble your safety on the bet that I’m seeing the correct aircraft.

And what about that other aircraft? The fact is, that aircraft may not even be flown by a licensed pilot.

Students with minimal hours are allowed to fly solo in the same airspace as your jetliner. And when the air traffic controller points out your jetliner to this student pilot–or weekend hobbyist pilot–what are the chances that he’ll do better than I would? Because my point is, I often refuse the visual separation clearance.

The result?

The air traffic controller must maintain positive radar separation between our jetliner and the other aircraft. This may mean slightly longer vectors, maybe a minute or two of extra flying in order to sequence our aircraft safely into the mix of flights in the terminal area. I personally can find no downside in that for you and me at a mile or two up flying at a couple hundred miles per hour.

Where do the air traffic controllers stand in this squeeze play of airspace users and managers? Tireless advocates for airline safety through appropriate air traffic control manning and airspace management, controllers have long warned of shortages of radar monitoring and manpower in critical terminal areas.

But the FAA and private plane owners may often prioritize workload and operating costs respectively above my (and your) priorities in the same situation and unfortunately, the same airspace. Both have resisted attempt by safety groups to exclude student pilots or even low-time private pilots from crowded airways and airports.

With increased pressure on the FAA to move air traffic in and out of airports as quickly as possible (see again the Wharton report), “see-and-avoid” clearances allow Air Traffic Control to increase the flow rates of an ever-increasing traffic load.

Light aircraft owners have a powerful lobby group that opposes all efforts to limit their airspace access.

This powerful lobby group is supported by an even more powerful and financially vulnerable group, the manufacturers of light aircraft whose sales depend upon users’ access to airspace.

Add up those factors, throw in ever-increasing air traffic congestion, airspace demands and private pilot owners’ “rights” to free flight and you have the a volatile mix that sooner or later will erupt in disaster–again.

Because when it comes to “see and avoid” in today’s complex mix of air traffic and inexperienced pilots at every major airport, I can sum up the risk of a midair collision in four words:

“You bet your life.”

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67 Responses to “Midair Collision? You bet your life.”

  1. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with this blog posting. You makes it sound like class B airspace is the wild west with smaller aircraft doing whatever they feel like doing, when in fact even smaller aircraft are required to follow the same rules as the airlines, including following ATC instructions and squaking on a transponder. It goes beyond just ‘see and avoid’. As a ‘small plane’ pilot that flies out of class C airspace I can assure you that we are required to follow the same rules as you in congested airspace. If I break those rules or deviate from an ATC instruction then I am subject to hefty fines and penalties just like you.

    There are also restrictions in place for student pilots flying out of class B, and TCAS was the response to the 1978 accident you referred to and has made a huge improvement in safety near major hubs in recent years.

    I am somewhat surprised and disappointed at your negativity towards GA, since pretty much every airline pilot in the world started out flying in a small plane and even beyond as they try to accumulate hours and experience required to get a foot in the door. Without groups like AOPA, flight training that you yourself enjoyed as a young and inexperienced pilot would be even more expensive and restrictive than it already is, and imposing the restrictions that you are suggesting means that airline pilots will never be exposed to class B or C airspace until they have 100 passengers sitting behind them. To me that sounds even less safe than the way things are now.

    • I *was* scary as a new pilot, courtesy of your United States Air Force. I think I was most dangerous when I finally got about 500 hours and started to feel comfortable as a pilot. Now I have enough years and hours to know better–which is why I wrote this. Thanks for reading and offering some good points.

  2. 767 Driver Says:

    Thanks 4 saying what so many of us airline types are thinking and worrying about. The airspace situation is becoming a real hazard due to crowding and I agree, the mix of pros and hobbyists.

    It’s predictable that the hobby-lobby would come onto your blog and howl and moan (yeah, that’s you “MD Pilot”), but that’s because you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Sure, we can forget the last midair. Until the next one.

    • Well to be fair, the general aviation people have their own legitimate viewpoint based on their own interests and perspectives. There are plenty of places advocating their viewpoint on-line and otherwise.

      But this post is to express our equally valid viewpoint on my own personal blog. It’s a shame that there can’t be any discussion of restricting airspace without the instant wailing and gnashing of teeth from those unable to tolerate a contrary viewpoint (not all of them were that way–some were very reasonable).

      But as you said, nothing will get done about the danger until as in the case of the Buffalo crash last year, some new “tombstone” regulations are created.

      Thanks for writing and reading.

      • Restricting airspace is a problem. The root of the issue you posit in your OP above is acceptance of the visual separation, not the “hobby pilot.” Once the pilot (pro, hobby, student or otherwise) acknowledges the called out traffic “in sight,” the controller can relinquish separation responsibility. If you have a concern about this, it’s a simple matter for you to “fail” to observe the conflicting traffic thereby forcing the controller to provide a vector for one or both aircraft.

        Further restrictions on yet another freedom many of us hold dear is not the answer. Just ask any GA pilot wanting to fly to KCGS (College Park, MD) or even KHEF (Manassas, VA).

  3. Biz Flyer Says:

    As a 100,000 mile a year flyer I honestly don’t give a damn about anyones “hobby” when it comes to safe air travel.

    The air traffic mix as you explain it makes about as much sense as allowing skateboarder hobbyists on the freeway. At least in that case, when my Escalade meets their inexperience I’ll barely notice the impact.

    Not so when one of their play toys collides with the widebody I and 200 others are riding on.

    Keep ’em out of the sky around major airports. Period.

    • Michael Says:

      Biz Flyer, all you’ve really pointed out is that in your “100,000 miles a year” of frequent flying, you still know nothing about the regulations that keep you safe in the sky. These existing regulations work, and will continue to work so long as every party involved (this includes the widebody pilot, the tower controller, the center controller, and the private airplane pilot) does their part. What is your proposed solution? I suspect if you saw a shiny new Gulfstream jet waiting to take off as you were landing you wouldn’t be so worried as you would if it were a ratty old Cessna, but it may shock and surprise you to know that the wallet often doesn’t match the skill level of the pilot. I suggest you educate yourself further before going along with such an exclusionary outlook.

    • SkyChazz Says:

      Biz Flyer,

      You wrote: “The air traffic mix as you explain it makes about as much sense as allowing skateboarder hobbyists on the freeway.”

      Well, that’s just it. The situation as explained here by the blog author is very misleading. Your analogy doesn’t hold because we’re talking about “certificated” pilots or, in very rare cases, those seeking certification–not skateboarding hot-doggers. A more fitting analogy would be the truck/bus industry climbing all over you because you use your Escalade as a “hobbyist” on the highway: a public resource paid for by public taxes. The national airspace system is the same kind of public resource and the funding for ATC comes from taxes of various types, too. Public resources should not be used exclusively by industries when they belong to all of us.

      I have seen my share of “Student Driver” signs on top of cars on major highways, too. They should get that experience while under the guidance of an instructor before they receive their licenses just as pilots should get major airspace exposure with an instructor before they get their full certificates.

      BTW, the ATC system was created in response to “hot-dogging” commercial pilots who collided their aircraft over the Grand Canyon while “sightseeing.” ATC is here to keep the commercial folks from doing something stupid and running into each other. GA pilots are not any more inherently dangerous.

      • I’m just a pilot guy with an opinion on my own personal blog, which is no big deal.

        What *is* a big deal is the fact that opposing sides are talking to each other here. That’s great, and significant.

        Talk amongst yourselves . . .

  4. M. Kantor, Sr. Says:

    I’ve been a private pilot and a lifetime AOPA member since you were a snot-nosed lieutenant learning to fly on my tax dollars.

    I will fly anywhere and any time I damn well please because it’s my god-given and faa given right to do so.

    I speak for all private pilots when I say shut up, jackass, and stay out of my way. I have every right to be in the sky to.

    • LOL. I admit, I probably had only a stereotyped impression of the average private pilot in my mind.

      Thanks for clearing that up!

    • RhinoFromTX Says:

      Excuse the bluntness, but please don’t presume to speak for your fellow private pilots. I’m not the biggest fan of what was written here, but that is no excuse for your post. ALL of us who fly should be respectful of others regardless of our rights. I may have a right to go shooting on my property, but I’m going to exercise restraint if I see something obvious, or even possibly suspicious downrange. Morality demands that.
      As a CFI I’ve taught my students to be courteous of other aircraft and to attempt to stay out of the jets way. I will say this to the blogger, while there may be some real jerks in the GA world, it would be nice if some airline guys didn’t treat all of us GA folks as “hobbyists.”

  5. Marty Kusch Says:

    On a positive note….at least you’ve been assigned to fly a little jet. It’s probably more maneuverable than the larger more complex aircraft that your colleagues fly. That advantage will come in handy if you ever have to execute an evasive maneuver to avoid a mid-air.

    You also posses quite a talent as a cartoonist.

    • Actually, as far as size and maneuverability, in my experience the DC-10 is much easier to hand-fly than it’s bastard stepchild, the MD-80 that I fly now. Being designed after a sewer pipe, it’s adequate in roll but barely in pitch. The DC-10 was much easier to put on the number in LaGuardia than the Maddog.

  6. Mr. Manno:
    It seems unfortunate that so far no one has touched the issue you broached – that is, your refusal to accept “visual separation” flight rules and instead require radar separation due to the errors inherent in the visual system.
    The ASRS database has some pre-established reports, but none on this specific topic. I just ran a custom run looking for the term “TCAS” in the text of the individual reports, and I got back 1847 records. Looking at a smattering of them, there are a lot of traffic interaction problems out there all the time, as this system dutifully records. To pretend otherwise is just confirming one’s home state as Denial. Rather than shoot the messenger you would think that your readers would support a no-fault push to improve flying safety, and not fall back on circling their wagons.

  7. Chris, it’s clear somebody screwed up at SFO. The 727/172 collision way back then was another foul-up. The point of your post, though, was that you are not comfortable with impromptu visual separation clearances. I agree. I had to learn that lesson for myself after accepting a visual separation clearance and seeing how really big a KC-10 can be out of my Gulfstream window – even at 3-4 miles. On another occasion when asked whether a visual separation clearance in the northeast corridor would be agreeable between myself and an Airbus pilot, the Airbus pilot answered immediately that he was not comfortable with that – and I agreed. A third occasion for a visual separation clearance worked out really well – off the coast of west Africa We coordinated first with the other aircraft and when we agreed we were completely in synch with our situational awareness the controller approved our G-V to climb to a flight level higher than the Springbok 747. Of course, there aren’t a whole lot of airplanes to sort out in that area. My point is there is a time and a place where a visual separation clearance can be accomplished safely but there are a lot more where it can’t.

    There are pilots and there are pilots, but statistically none are out to ruin their day or anyone else’s. (Sure, there’s the IRS kamikaze, but still it’s a statistical zero). I’d ask that the pilots in big airplanes and little airplanes do their dead-level best to be where they should be and keep an eye and ear out for those rare occasions when the human factor threatens to creep into the comfort zone.

  8. JD West Says:

    Was all set to chew your but over the GA issue (I’m a private pilot) but I have to say, you’ve written a lot of meaningful, interesting stuff here.

    So I’ll agree to disagree if you will, and I’ll keep reading if you’ll keep writing the deep and beautiful flying prose that you have here.

    Deal?

  9. MIKE W. Says:

    YOU REALLY SCREWED THE POOCH, JET BOY.

    I SUGGEST YOU REMOVE ALL REFERENCES TO AOPA, WHERE YOUR NAME IS MUD ON ALL DISCUSSION BOARDS.

    PRIVATE PILOTS RULE. YOU SUCK.

  10. alaskaflyer Says:

    So a 17000 hour ATP should be able to point me to some reference explaining what a see and avoid clearance is, right? Or even a see and avoid ATC instruction?

    • I don’t want to spoil your smug little end zone dance.

      But actually, a 20-hour student pilot reading the AIM could probably point you to Sec. 5-5-8, “See and Avoid.”

      Or more succinctly in the PCG, “A pilot sees the other aircraft involved and upon instructions from the controller provides his/her own separation by maneuvering his/her aircraft as necessary to avoid it. This may involve following another aircraft or keeping it in sight until it is no longer a factor. (See SEE AND AVOID clearance.)”

      Might make you look a little less dopey if you did your homework BEFORE you raised your hand.

  11. Tom Seagraves Says:

    Captain, it seems your entry has ruffled some feathers out there. I’m not a pilot so I really can’t comment on anything that’s been said in regard to all this airspace talk. But, since I’m one of those guys who frequently squeezes my super-sized fat American ass into one of those 17 1/2 inch wide seats in the back of your MD-80, I’m going to have to trust what you’re saying. Also, since you have 17,000+ hours flying those beasts through the skies, and so far you’ve it safely, I really don’t give a crap about what those other guys are saying. Please continue to put safety first so when I have to travel I can make it back home to my family.

    • Yeah, it’s kind of funny, isn’t it? Like listening to a bunch of seventh grade girls having a hissy fit over some junior high silliness.

      My lard ass barely fits in back, which is why I have to sit up front. Glad to have you on board.

  12. Mooney4Ever Says:

    I’m an instrument rated private pilot and Mooney owner. I take your point regarding the mix of aircraft and speeds in the terminal area without any emotional fluff unlike the prima donnas above.

    I agree that extended radar vectors are not a bad idea for sorting out and calming down what gets to be a real free-for-all around Atlanta and Washington where I often fly.

    It’s big of you to publicly admit you’re not comfortable with VFR see-and-avoid and prefer radar vectors. I do too.

    You’re hearing from a lot of the hotheads hear. But there is a silent majority of private pilots who agree with me–and you.

    • Yours is the last word on this–the whiners make the rest of the private pilots look bad. But the reality is, the post was viewed over 900 times, with just a handful of complainers. Pretty good percentages.

      Thanks for commenting.

  13. Steve Boyette Says:

    Whew,
    I sure am glad that the pilots involved at SFO didn’t refuse to use “visual separation” (like I’m sure you would have). How would that have turned out if they would have blindly followed “vectors” from ATC???

    • You either didn’t read or you just missed the point: I said I often refuse the clearance because I can’t be sure I’m looking at the right traffic.

      Ready, fire, aim . . .

  14. Glad I read this before getting on a flight to O’Hare. Ummmmm, thanks! In all seriousness, love the blog.

  15. Not to start another round of GA whining, but if I get a TCAS R/A, 9 out of 10 times it’s a FLAP (F-ing Light Aircraft Pilot) where he’s not supposed to be.

    The 10th is usually someone leveling off in RVSM which is normal.

    Okay, let the hysteria begin . . . = ]

    • Not to worry, airline amigo–the next round of hysteria will be in a feature “Meet The GA Pilot” or something like that; collecting the nuttiest comments/names and will make it a full-blown blog entry topic.

      Maybe it the sub-title should be “people unclear on the concept: blog vs. forum.” Approval of comments required, names, “who is” data, etc. That’s one of the features that makes WordPress a good blog host: they provide “Who Is” and IP Lookup for every incoming comment (so how’s the weather in BWI today?).

      Makes for good blog fodder . . .

  16. Great post, I agree 100% that VFR “see and avoid” should be used less, especially in crowded terminals.

    Here at DFW, with a handful of airplanes for a particular runway, it can work okay. When it gets really busy, controllers clear you “visual,” but with a heading and altitude to intercept final. That’s really not a visual approach per the AIM, but it makes sense and sorts everything out on final.

    But flying into the SoCal mess of bug smashers and flying dentists zooming every which way enjoying their “hobby,” it’s a different story.

    The controllers there (ONT, BUR, SAN, LAX) do a good job pointing out traffic, but there’s too much of it. I hope your blog adds to the pressure to constrain VFR traffic in high density areas.

    Good job and keep up the good work.

    • That’s the whole point: the time has come for more restrictions on VFR clearances in densely crowded airspace, especially with the added risk factor of dissimilar size and speed of aircraft.

      In Chicago, there’s less GA traffic, probably due to the weather which isn’t as favorable as SoCal. The controllers at O’Hare are the best at vectoring and getting everyone lined up on final. Don’t often see even the abridged DFW-style “visual” you described, probably again due to the weather but also due to the traffic saturation during prime time. Ditto LaGarbage and Newark.

      But below 10,000 feet in SoCal is a combat zone, as you said. That needs to be tamed before there’s another major accident.

  17. SafetyFirst Says:

    There are plenty of forums catering to recreational fliers. If they don’t like what you write here in your own blog, screw ’em: if they’re not smart enough to click away they’re probably not smart enough to deal with a vfr clearance much less discuss it intelligently.

    Keep telling it like it is. The whiners can return to their own “we’re great private pilots” websites and blogs and pat each other on the back.

    We’ll continue with our union PACs in DC working toward smarter FARs for everyone’s safety.

    • Well said.

      Yours is the predominant response from those who fly for a living. Those who fly for fun seem to be the ones sputtering, fuming and writing themselves into a self-righteous but pointless dither.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  18. Watanabe Says:

    So tell your airline to install ADS-B in your cockpit.

    • Sure. It’s that easy.

      But while they install that on all 400+ aircraft, which could take a day or two, I support more restrictive use of VFR clearances in high density areas with dissimilar traffic types.

  19. It is interesting to me how many of you are complaining about this post. I work at an EnRoute air traffic facility, for those of you unfamiliar, an air traffic control center. While I don’t work the Class B/C airspace, we cover just about everything else.

    Just last month I plugged in to help a controller who was busy sequencing arrivals before they went into approach control airspace. A VFR twin Cessna was climbing through a SWA B737 on a PUBLISHED arrival. The controller was too busy to catch it until the conflict alert went off. The SWA pilot then proceeded to question why the aircraft was flying out there anyway. Unfortunately, the Cessna pilot did not grasp the gravity of the situation and became defensive and stupid to the fact that he and a big jet almost collided!

    Although VFR is a free for all once outside of the Class B airspace, it doesn’t mean pilots of small planes should be flying around sight seeing with a finger up the nose not paying attention to what is really going on.

    Near Mid-Airs happen all the time! Wake-up! To those of you who think you are good GA pilots and are offended by this post, GET OVER YOURSELVES! I don’t care if you have been flying for 20+ years, you are not the only plane in the sky. The majority of the issues I see on a daily basis involve GA.

    @ the person who wrote complaining about slowing down the system and wasting money because of taking extra vectors, that’s just STUPID. Safety is paramount and if a pilot is not comfortable with taking a visual separation clearance, that’s just fine with me! If it takes two minutes longer for me to get that aircraft to the altitude he needs to be, how much money and time are we really talking, put a value on it, when it prevents incidents like the 78′ one from happening?

    Hey, that’s just my two cents though but, rest assured if you are out there flying around VFR in the EnRoute environment, I will get to you when it is operationally feasible so you had better be paying attention to what’s going on!

    • Excellent points. The controllers are caught in the middle of this airspace crowding and do one hell of a job sorting it out.

      Many of the primary whiners on this thread are either incapable of seeing past their own small piece of the picture or are just plain selfish.

      Thanks for weighing in with an experienced voice from ATC.

  20. UncleTony Says:

    Relax, JetHead, and embrace the big picture: these AOPA folks whipped into a frenzy on their site and forum and spilling over here are serving the basic purpose of general aviation.

    Without GA, there would be an overabundance of dentists, doctors and lawyers. It’s just nature culling the herd. The only natural predator of the above and many others with more money than brains is the light aircraft.

    The ones spouting off the loudest with the nastiest posts are actually first in line for the culling process: they can’t control their emotions, they have poor judgment, giving in to their worst impulses.

    Be patient–the process works. They’ll shut themselves up, eventually.

    • ROFLMAO. And thanks to you I just passed coffee through my nose.

      I’ll share this with my F/O today; he too is ex-AF w/no GA interest. We’ll spend the next three days in the air laughing.

  21. 767Driver Says:

    Ditto uncletony’s comment–and yours: just spit coffee all over my keyboard.

    “That’s funny I don’t care who you are.” –Larry the Cable Guy

  22. depressed pilot Says:

    Don’t know why you go on so about GA pilots. At the rate things are going, another few years and there won’t be any left.

    • Cheer up: at the rate that oil prices are going up, pretty soon we’ll all be walking.

      At least that’ll cut back on the hand-carried luggage hassles, which is a problem with every boarding these days.

  23. Colonel T Says:

    Don’t worry about stirring up the the lunatics in the AOPA asylum–you keep telling it like it is: the airspace is too crowded to be used as their playground.

    All their hootin’ and yelling is just what those monkeys love to do, haranguing their congressmen about their right to screw up the airspace and flinging their poop at everyone near their AOPA on-line monkey house just for fun.

    The GA fools need to either learn to live with more restrictoions or find a new hobby.

    • SwiftDriver Says:

      Well Colonel, I thought you were paid to defend “us monkeys” rights and during my 22 years in the military, I didn’t see anything giving the military exclusive use of the national airspace at the exclusion of the fools.

      I can understand the concerns Jethead expressed. I don’t understand your arrogance towards other pilots. Did that chicken on your collar peck you in the head?

  24. airline watcher Says:

    This article made me think of general aviation in a new light. Not because of anything you wrote, but because of the immature, selfish and thoughtless comments they posted afterwards.

    And they’re allowed to fly airplanes? That IS scary.

  25. Beau-nanza45U Says:

    I’m an AOPA member and will never agree to limit my access to the skies. That said, I really don’t oppose your call for more judicious use of VFR approach clearances.

    Meanwhile, I’ve seen the sparks flying on both sides of the AOPA firewall and am sad to say that my own organization risks their all-important credibility as a force in public opinion with such irresponsible, thoughtless rhetoric.

    AOPA is becoming a one-trick pony, stoking the egos of a few at the expense of the many who want and deserve access to the airspace. Your blog makes sense, and the current thoughtless screaming by those with different agendas really doesn’t.

    Time for smarter leadership and public relations at AOPA.

  26. […] (To read the essay and see how the picture, video and text work together, click here) […]

  27. Theresa Harper Says:

    I am sure an ATC job is VERY stressful. I hope they get paid well, because i sure would not want it as a job. Plus, to know that they could be held responsible for someon else’s stupidity in not looking for traffic.

  28. Theresa Harper Says:

    How do i put my pic on here so it will show up by my name?

  29. As a recently retired Air Traffic Controller, I agree with the basic premise that the skies are NOT getting more safe. I worked over the years in the DFW area, ABQ, SoCal and BWI. Positive radar control is more work for the controller and a few more miles for the pilot but is infinitely more safe than utilizing visual separation.

    The problem is that the FAA is tasked not only with the safe operation of our skies and airports, but also with the expeditious movement of aircraft. Oftimes these two goals are at odds with each other.

    Controllers are under constant pressure to move the tin quickly — crews and aircraft costs, schedules, weather, physical space on the tarmac — all these and other issues require the controller to get planes on their way as quickly as possible. It’s like the old card game of War — deal those planes off to someone else as fast as you can!

    Also, I’d point out that the huge numbers of controllers who were hired after the strike are now retiring. Between the strike and now was a long period of “Train to Succeed” during which it was nearly impossible to wash anyone out of the job. Those folks are now the senior controllers. Draw your own conclusions.

    Stay safe…and have fun!

    • I agree 100%: radar separation is still the safest. Visual separation may allow more traffic movement, but also introduces a risk of faulty identification of traffic by any pilot. The consequences can be and have been deadly.

  30. This has been an interesting read. I flew ultralights here in the U.K. on a CAA Private Pilot’s License.
    Fortunately we don’t suffer the mouthy nutters that condemn your views on this side of the pond, although we do maintain a healthy input with our regulators.
    If anyone likes to read the views of UK private pilots on flight safety I recommend looking at Forums.Flyer.co.uk.
    In the UK we don’t have to suffer a free for all in congested airspace. The rules are simple. Unless suitably qualified and equipped we ‘aint allowed in without specific permission, and then only for a transit and if the controller has time to look after us.
    Most U.K. pilots are well aware of the difficulty of see and avoid when applied to heavy metal. There isn’t much view from the flight deck of an airliner, so most of the seeing has to be done by the pilot of the light aircraft.
    Fat wallets and loud mouths will solve nothing. A bit of give and take and polite consideration of other airspace users needs will help a lot.

  31. Nothing to admire about flying ultralights.
    They are very agile, crash veeerrrry slowly and can only just barely kill you.
    Thank you for an interesting blog.

  32. Captain Richard P. Siano Says:

    Mid-Air Collisions Are Too Rare to Worry About or It is a Big Sky!

    Alfred E. Neumann
    625 words
    How often do mid-air collisions occur? I went to the Nall Report on the AOPA’s web site to see the most recent General Aviation statistics available for 2007. The Nall Report on General Aviation accident statistics only covers fixed-wing general aviation aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or less. It says there were only 10 in all of 2007!

    Surprisingly these 10 mid-air collisions involving 20 different aircraft with 21 pilots and passengers resulted in only 4 deaths. Two of the mid-air collisions were by four aircraft involved in formation flight.

    The fact mid-air collisions may be survivable is rarely written or talked about. In 2007, there were a total of 17 survivors from six different mid-airs involving 12 aircraft!

    My flight career took of in January of 1961 when I first soloed a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser as a member of the Kent State University Flying Club. I began to fly for Trans World Airlines in 1964. First as a co-pilot on the Lockheed Constellation and finally as a Boeing 747 captain. Along the way I accumulated a lot of flight time over the next 50 years.

    In that 50 year period of time, I never experienced a close call from a mid-air collision. Why?

    The continental United States is comprised of 3 million square miles. If the airspace to a level of 10 miles is available to be used by all aircraft the available amount of airspace is 30 million cubic miles. This is a heck of a lot of airspace or another way of saying it is to say: “It is a big sky!”

    Now how many aircraft are using the big sky at the same time? Today, it is possible to obtain the answer from a web site that counts aircraft in the air called FlightAware.com. I just went to the web site and right now (Sunday, May 22, 2010 at 7:30 PM there are 3,672 airborne aircraft including 205 which are operating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR).

    The highest number of aircraft that are in the air at the same time counted by FlightAware is 5,650.

    Assuming the aircraft were distributed in only half the available airspace or 15 million cubic miles it would mean each aircraft has approximately 3,000 cubic miles or a space 20 miles long, 20 miles wide and 7 miles high.

    This is the primary reason for the lack of mid-air collisions. The Big Sky!

    What role does Air Traffic Control play in mid-air collision prevention?

    Another little talked about and written about is the possibility that it might play a negative role meaning ATC procedures may actually contribute to the mid-air collision issue.

    ATC will normally assign aircraft to fly along an established airway such as Victor 210 separating us by altitude, lateral and longitudinal separations and watched over by radar. If either an air traffic controller or a pilot makes a mistake in the altitude flown or assigned, a mid-air collision is much more likely to happen due to the traffic being compacted by the present system.

    In the real world, it means they are actually packing us closer together than if random flight paths were being flown by each aircraft. Normal vertical separation between Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) aircraft is just 1,000 feet. The normal vertical separation between IFR traffic and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) traffic is just 500 feet.

    As a result of being aware of these facts, I will admit to not ever being overly concerned about mid-air collisions while I am flying my airplane.
    What level of mid-air collision concern to you experience while flying your plane?

    • Your comment is almost longer than my original blog entry. But as for your question, I remain concerned about the possible traffic conflicts that are possible and even likely due to aircraft accepting VFR see-and-avoid clearances in high density traffic areas where the likelihood of misidentification is high.

      • Captain Richard P. Siano Says:

        Hi Chris,
        In spite of the weaknesses in the “see and avoid system” there are still too few actual mid air collisions to worry about. The weaknesses of the radar based system are almost never talked about. The accuracy of the radar position is a function of the distance from the antenna. The speed at which the radar antenna is rotating (it may take from 8 to 14 seconds to complete one 360 degree rotation) lessens the accuracy as well. If your ground speed is high, lets say you have a 200 kt tailwind, the lack of accuracy may require the controller to separate you as much as 10 miles.

      • Thanks for writing. What concerns me is a non-radar issue: the use of VFR clearances in congested airspace. This increases the probability of misidentification and possible traffic conflict.

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