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.
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.
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.
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 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.”