I was four days away from my private pilot check ride. My CFI, an Air Force Academy graduate, was with me as I practiced specialty takeoffs and landings at the towered airport. I had just completed the pre-landing GUMPS check on downwind, when he cried out the magic phrase—”I have the controls”—and I replied, “Your airplane!” and let go.
He put us into a steep turn to the left. A nanosecond later I saw why—a Beech Baron was approaching from 45 degrees, on our right and slightly above and behind us.
The pilot of the twin made a radio call announcing entry to the downwind. The tower controller admonished the twin driver that they had “almost run over a Cessna 152 in the pattern.” The twin pilot replied, “I didn’t see him.”
Welcome to the world of the “almost” mid-air. On a good day, the “near miss” becomes a story you tell. On a bad day, you end up on national television.
The Swiss Cheese Model
One of the first things you learn in aviation is that you can do everything right, respecting the weather, your skills, and the aircraft, and you can follow the procedures outlined in the AIM, make the right radio calls, etc., but if someone else does something wrong, you can still pay the price. It’s the classic Swiss cheese model—when the random acts line up like the holes in the cheese, accidents happen.
This statement is particularly poignant in light of recent mid-air collisions—the first in Las Vegas on July 17 involving a Piper PA-46-350P JetProp and a Cessna 172, and the second on August 18 in Watsonville, California, involving a twin Cessna 340A and a Cessna 152. Both accidents happened when the pilots were attempting to land.
According to the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook, most mid-air collisions happen in the airport traffic pattern—usually when both aircraft are heading in the same direction. It is often the result of a faster airplane overtaking a slower one, and the combination of a high wing vs. a low wing design resulting in blind spots that prove fatal.
In the Las Vegas event, the pilot of the Piper, which was the faster aircraft, lined up to land on Runway 30R at North Las Vegas Airport (KVGT), despite acknowledging the clearance to land on Runway 30L several times. Overshooting Runway 30L put the Piper into the path of the Cessna 172. The Piper is a low wing and the Cessna is a high wing, so it is possible that their respective wings blocked their view of each other until it was too late.
In the Watsonville accident, the pilot of the Cessna 152, who was based at Watsonville Municipal Airport (KWVI), was practicing touch and gos. According to records from FlightAware.com, the pilot of the 340 frequently made flights to KWVI. Based on this information, it would be safe to bet that both pilots were aware of the traffic pattern procedures at the non-towered facility. Judging from the amount of radio traffic LiveATC.com captured that afternoon, Watsonville was busy at the time of the accident, with a few airplanes in the pattern, yet the pilot of the 340 chose to do a straight-in approach.
Speed as a Factor
One of the first lessons learned as a multiengine pilot is to use the word "twin" in your callsign to let people know you are likely faster than any single-engine aircraft in the pattern. Flying a pattern in a twin-engine aircraft requires you to be very much on your game as the speed makes it very easy for you to overtake the average single in the pattern. For this reason, many twin pilots choose to do straight-in approaches at non-towered airports. These are not prohibited by the FARs, but they are often litigated in the court of public opinion on the ramp and in social media as to whether they present a safety hazard. Many pilots prefer not to do them as they feel they can create unnecessary risk.
The ADS-B information from the Watsonville event indicates the airspeed of the 340 was around 180 knots on final approach. The pilot had announced a "full stop landing," however, the flap extension speed for the 340 is 160 knots and landing gear extension speed is 140 knots. At the time this article was published, it had not been determined if the 340 was actually configured for landing, despite the pilot's verbalized intentions.
The pilots of the 152 and the 340 were in radio contact just prior to the collision. The 340 pilot reported a 3-mile final and a 1-mile final, and reported looking for the Cessna 152, which had reported turning base. The pilot of the 152 turned on final in front of the 340. The last transmission from the pilot of the 152 indicated that he could see the 340—either out the window or on the ADS-B, we don't know—and as he noted the 340 was coming up fast behind him, the 152 pilot announced he was going around.
According to eyewitnesses, it appeared the pilot of the low-wing 340 saw the high-wing 152 at the last second, as the larger aircraft banked hard to the right but still flew through the 152 "like a missile." Security cameras across the street caught the wreckage falling from the sky and what was left of the smaller airplane as it spiraled into a field short off the runway. The 340 continued forward, then crashed into the end row of hangars, sending up a fireball.
The NTSB preliminary report on the accident should be available in approximately two weeks.
The Myth: The Tower or ATC Prevents Mid-Air Collisions
There is a commonly held myth—especially among the aviation-challenged—that the presence of a control tower prevents mid-air collisions. While the extra set of eyes and situational awareness provided by the tower is helpful and appreciated, it is not an iron-clad preventative, as proven in the Las Vegas accident where both aircraft had the benefit of a tower.
Most airports in the U.S. are non-towered, also known as pilot-controlled. The lack of a tower doesn't make these airports any more dangerous than a lack of stop lights at every intersection makes them more dangerous than those that have traffic lights.
As long as drivers—and pilots—see and avoid traffic and follow the rules of the pattern, instructions, and procedures, accidents can be avoided.
No matter where we are flying, be it a towered or non-towered airport, pilots are responsible to see and avoid other air traffic —and to act accordingly. Straight-in approaches have their place and must be learned and practiced just like those that require a pattern. Straight-in landings are more common at towered airports, especially as part of an instrument approach, and the first time a learner does one, it's often rushed, despite the use of a checklist. The straight-in approach can deprive you of the cues that help you configure and stabilize the aircraft for landing, such as "reduce engine power abeam the intended point of touch down" and "apply the notch of flaps before turning base." Without these cues, it is easy to get behind the airplane.
When and Where Mid-Airs Happen
One of the common questions after a mid-air is why they can happen on sunny VFR days. More aircraft are flying on these days, so the probability increases—this is particularly true if the VFR day happens at a time of year when VFR days are rare, like in the middle of winter—pilots come out in droves.
According to the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook (AFM), mid-airs are more likely in places where aircraft congregate—such as over VORs, popular sightseeing spots, IFR fixes, VFR practice areas and the big Kahuna: in the vicinity of airports, especially during the approach to landing. The AFM adds the sobering information: mid-air collisions are most likely to happen when the aircraft are below 1,000 feet and traveling in the same direction—such as on final approach.
Tools for Prevention of Mid-Airs
- Sterile cockpit for takeoff and landing—if you have a passenger/copilot, let them know the only acceptable conversation at this time is a warning about traffic or other safety of flight issues.
- Pattern entry should be done using published procedures that are airport specific or in the absence of these, refer to Chapter 4 of the AIM.
- When entering on the 45, be at pattern altitude, to avoid descending on to someone or accidentally climbing into someone who is overflying the airport at 500 feet above the published pattern altitude.
- Departure from the pattern should comply with locally published procedures or Chapter 4 of the AIM.
- Listen to and make radio calls per the AIM.
- Make precise position reports including altitude—example: "Red and white Cessna, 5 miles east of the airport, 2,000 feet, for landing Runway 35."
- Know how to use ADS-B to keep track of traffic around you.
- Get flight following, if able and appropriate when practicing maneuvers.
- Know where the IFR fixes are and keep an eye and an ear out for aircraft practicing approaches—especially on VFR days.
- If the use of a practice area frequency is more appropriate, use it for better situational awareness.
- Keep your eyes outside at least 90 percent of the time and remember, of all the rights worth dying for, "right of way" is not one of them. Follow the right-of-way rules in the FAR/AIM—if in doubt, give way to aircraft with greater speed and tonnage, departing the pattern, and maneuvering to reenter the pattern on the 45.