Plane & Pilot
Monday, August 1, 2005

Avoiding Midair Collisions

Here’s what you can do to “see and be seen” when flying into high-traffic airspace

It was over so fast, it was almost as if it hadn’t happened. And, of course, fortunately for everyone, it hadn’t. It was only a blur in my peripheral vision, so fleeting that I wasn’t really sure it was there. It may have been a Seneca or Twin Comanche, angling in from my 10 o’clock. The airplane was slightly below me, and I had one of those terrifying, stop-action glimpses of two people in the cockpit, the pilot looking down at his instruments and the right-seater staring at him.
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Electronic help has been available for a while, if at a price. I began using a Ryan TCAD a dozen years ago, and today, I also employ a Garmin 330 mode-S transponder with TIS uplink to a Garmin 430. This provides me with essentially the same traffic information available to controllers. Until you’ve used a system such as TIS or Skywatch, you can’t truly appreciate its talents. The TIS provides me with cues on spotting airplanes I’d never see otherwise.

Like many of you, however, I owned and operated half a dozen airplanes for years with nothing more sophisticated for traffic-spotting than what the military calls the Advanced Technology Mk 1 Eyeball. I spent a quarter-century flying with only those Mk 1s to protect me from a collision.

While TCAS has been available to the airlines and much of corporate aviation for 20 years, “see and be seen” has long been the only economically feasible technology for general aviation. When properly applied, it can work reasonably well, but it’s the application that’s often difficult.

Unfortunately, few pilots have even a vague notion of how to scan for other traffic. The simple advice offered by instructors and examiners to keep your eyes outside the cockpit doesn’t begin to address the subject.

By definition, most military pilots fly regularly in close proximity to one another, so it should come as no big surprise that they’re better trained in proper methods of scanning. Merely keeping your concentration outside the airplane won’t necessarily provide warning of the approach of another aircraft.

The military teaches pilots to scan the airspace as scientifically as possible. The very word “scanning” implies a sweep of the surrounding airspace, and that’s exactly the wrong way to check for traffic. A sweep won’t allow your eyes to focus on anything, and even young eyes take a few seconds to focus.


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