Avoiding Mid-Airs: Safety in the Practice Area

Best practices for practice.

We were about to turn base to final at the non-towered airport when another pilot reported he was on final — but a few miles out. I didn’t see him. The pilot didn’t see him — and made the decision to depart the pattern, re-enter and try again. 

“I am not going to do a Watsonville,” he told me, referring to the midair collision that occurred at Watsonville Municipal Airport (KWVI) in northern California. The accident occurred on August 18 when a twin-engine Cessna 340 and a Cessna 152 were both on final approach. The C-152 was on final when the Cessna 340 which was traveling an estimated 80 knots faster than it should have been on approach, collided with the C-152. All three occupants of the aircraft and a dog were killed.

This crash came on the heels of a midair at Las Vegas international when the pilot of a Piper turboprop lined up on the wrong runway and collided with a Cessna 172 that was on short final. 

And just two weeks ago there was a midair involving a Sonex Xenos and a Cessna 172 near Longmont, Colorado that killed three. 

If the frequency of midair collisions doesn’t distress you, you don’t have a pulse. We pilots as a group have to do better.

Chapter 1 of the FAAs Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3C) notes that all pilots should practice the concept of see and avoid other traffic. It is easy to say, but we all know that mid-airs happen when pilot’s don’t see each other until it is too late. The text goes on to warn us “Most mid-air collision accidents and reported near midair collision incidents occur in good VFR weather conditions and during the hours of daylight. Most of these accident/incidents occur within 5 miles of an airport and/or near navigation aids.”

Head on a swivel. [Photo: Rebecca Selvin]

Safety in the Practice Area

Within that five miles from the airport you will likely find the practice area for the local flight schools. You have probably been there before. A lot of dual instruction takes place there, along with a lot of student solo flight. We can only hope that the pilots are effectively scanning for traffic, keeping their eyes outside 90% of the time, and always performing clearing turns. Sometimes pilots forget them — they may be distracted with other piloting tasks, or they may be fatigued or even bored and sort of zone out — in this case, the airplane is flying them, and they may not see what is outside.

It takes a few seconds for eyes to focus and for your brain to register that it is an airplane you see out the window. If it appears to be static but is increasing in size, you are on a collision course and evasive action should be taken.

The radio as a tool

Some areas have a tacit agreement among the local flight schools for procedures in the practice area. This can involve self-announcing using an air-to-air frequency, such as 122.75 to announce position in reference to the landmark and altitude along with the intended maneuver. For example, “Southwest practice area, blue and white high wing over the landfill at 3,400, steep turns” to let other pilots know where they are in an effort to enhance situational awareness. 

This can be effective as long as the pilots  A) Know where the landmarks are and B) Are self-announcing. 

Even if you don’t want to talk on the frequency you can still listen and hear where the other aircraft are — combine that with clearing turns and ADS-B, and you increase your chance of avoiding a midair collision.

Many flight schools require their instructors to be familiar with the area before they start teaching at the school. It’s fairly easy to do by using a sectional and Google Earth. If the flight instructor does not know where the landmarks are or simply doesn’t want to use the procedure the learner gets the message that it isn’t important — and they won’t use it either. 

Other instructors, renter pilots and solo students try to avoid practice area issues by heading to other areas to practice — this works as long as the pilots realize they are probably not the only aircraft out there and have good situational awareness about IFR fixes that they may be near. Many VFR pilots will tell you about the fun place they like to fly — or it was fun until that other airplane got too close. A review of the sectional and approach plate shows the pilots was flying within five miles of an airport and in the vicinity of an initial approach fix. 

The more experienced CFIs will often show the learners where the fixes for the IFR approaches are, along with the altitudes the aircraft are supposed to be at when they cross them. 

Pilots should also realize that their eyes may require several seconds to refocus when switching views between items such as the instrument panel to out the window. It’s also easy to be distracted by piloting tasks such as tuning in a radio, programming the GPS, etc. Remember the adage “Aviate, navigate, communicate” in that order ALWAYS.

Flight Following for Maneuvers

Have you ever asked for and been granted flight following for VFR maneuvers? If ATC isn’t too busy they will often accommodate. For the learner, this gives them an introduction to the use of ATC for flight following, a skill they will develop when they begin cross-country flights and they will definitely need when they pursue their instrument certification.

If ATC is too busy and you cannot obtain flight following, there is always the option of  monitoring the approach control frequency — you can find it on the Terminal Area Chart and Sectional for the area and listen for aircraft on approach to airports — especially if they are heading to an IFR fix you may be near.

There’s a lot to take in. Do your homework before you fly. [FLYING Archives]

Published VFR procedures

Sometimes airports are so busy the airport sponsor works with the FAA to create VFR procedures that rely on ground landmarks and assigned altitudes. These procedures are printed in FAA-approved publications, like on the TAC if the airport exists under the Class B veil, or the airport sponsor has taken it upon themselves to publish these VFR departures and arrivals either online or in a paper pamphlet form.

So how do you know if your airplane or the airport you are going to visit has these procedures? Check the appropriate Chart Supplement and or go online and search the airport’s official webpage.

For the most part though, reporting points are shared through the folklore method or “tribal knowledge” and I must say I am not a fan — if you are unfamiliar, a pilot reporting they are over “Wally World” doesn’t mean a thing unless you have stumbled into a Chevy Chase movie — after landing we learned it was local slang for a water park – the learner thought it was a reference to the Walmart located across the street from the airport – it’s easy to understand how confusing tribal knowledge is. 

That being said, I have been that CFI who has pointed landmarks on the ground, telling the learner what they are and adding the caveat “this is not published at this time” and noting the reference is part of the entry or departure from the local pattern and it IS tribal knowledge. This practice puts my ears back flat as I’m a person who likes attribution for information and when I hear the phrase ‘my instructor told me’ as attribution it makes me want to scream into a pillow.

I am not the only pilot who is uncomfortable with tribal knowledge — there are some pilots who can get very ugly about this to the point they will lecture a pilot over the radio about their perceived transgressions. Please don’t be this pilot. Please don’t engage this pilot.

Some pilots can REALLY get hostile — on one flight my learner and myself were subjected to a midair lecture from a pilot who chastised the learner for reporting he was “Over the Boeing plant”. From the air, the Boeing Plant is a collection of industrial buildings a few miles to the southwest of the airport. On the TAC it is listed as WAREHOUSE when actually, it’s sort of an industrial complex.

The objecting pilot who was based at the airport argued the description, which was local knowledge, was confusing and useless to a pilot unfamiliar with the area. He was correct —  but this was not the time or place for that discussion. 

“Ignore him,” I ordered, thinking perhaps after we landed we could have a civilized discussion with the pilot over a cup of coffee.

We turned on the 45° — my learner making proper calls, wondering if they were getting out because the lecture was continuing. By now I was wondering what this was really about. Was this really about the mention of a local landmark? Was he not getting enough attention at home? The lecture finally stopped when we were abeam the numbers.

“Finally!” the learner said, then announced we were abeam the numbers and would be landing full stop.

Captain Lecture replied with “See you at the fuel pumps”. 

My learner looked at me, horrified while other pilots chimed in predicting a fight would follow. 

“Ignore them too,” I said.

“What if he is FAA?” the learner asked.

I replied that I didn’t think anyone from the FAA would go off like that on the frequency, and since I was the instructor and therefore PIC on this flight, any transgression was on my shoulders. I would take the heat.

“What if he wants to fight?”

“Then you hold my coat,” I replied, hoping it wouldn’t come to that, as I had just had my nails done.

As we pulled up to the fuel pump a few of my coworkers (all male) came out of the office. They’d been listening to the unicom. I shook my head and waved them back. 

We shut down using the checklist. No need to get sloppy because we were about to have a Westside Story moment.

Captain Lecture, in his mighty Cessna 150 pulled into transient parking. He shut down quickly, threw open the door and started marching over to us. He was wearing a military olive drab flight suit but the airplane was decidedly civilian. 

“Oh, he’s mad!” observed the learner.

“Stay in the airplane,” I said in Mom voice.

Captain Lecture was not much larger than me. I am — 5’2″ on a good day — so I wasn’t really worried as I stepped out of the airplane.

Captain Lecture radiated tension. “I have a bone to pick with you!” he yelled, raising his right hand and gesturing angrily.

“Oh hell no!” I heard my learner behind me, and I looked back to see him — all 6’9″ of him — tumbling out of the airplane, as he was ready to come to my defense.

I deployed the PARENTAL ARM. “Stay behind me,” I ordered, then looked back at Captain Lecture. He was frozen in place. 

“Is there something we need to talk about?” I asked politely. The subtext was YES-THIS-MAN-I-AM-HOLDING-BACK-IS-TWO-PEOPLE-TALLER-THAN-YOU-ARE-AND-HE-IS-FEELING-PROTECTIVE.

Captain Lecture, eyes wide, shook his head wordlessly and did an about face. He went back to his airplane, started it up and taxied away.

“That is how not to handle these things,” I told the learner. Later, I was informed by the airport manager that Captain Lecture often took pilots to task over the radio. This happened so much, one day someone from the FAA called him to suggest a change in behavior.

Now here’s the funny part — before I did any flying with this particular learner I had to go through the airplane to make sure there were no spiders on board. The learner is terrified of them. He found one once and let out a scream in a register that even I can’t hit.

We had an agreement that if spiders were found I was to remove them humanely, and place them in an area of shelter, preferably near a talking pig.

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