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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The more intelligent method of searching for other aircraft is to concentrate on a series of snapshots of the airspace. Divide the visible sky into segments and take in each snapshot for several seconds rather than merely trying to scan the entire sky in a few seconds. One method is to allocate five seconds to each 30 to 45 degrees of forward sky. That way, you’ll be finished in 20 to 30 seconds.

Well, almost anyway. It’s especially important that you don’t ignore the rear quadrant during your traffic check. Statistics suggest that a significant number of midairs are the result of overtakes where a faster airplane rear-ends or drops on top of slower traffic, especially during descents. For that reason, you should check above and behind when possible and make it a habit to monitor the airspace ahead and below during letdowns.

The design of many aircraft makes it next to impossible to see directly aft. Even the single-engine Cessnas with their small windows at aft cabin offer little, if any, real visibility to the rear, despite their rearview mirrors. Few general aviation airplanes are configured with bubble canopies, so it’s often difficult to check the rear view without making at least a 90-degree left or right turn.

When you scan for traffic, try to focus on something rather than merely staring off into space. That’s not always easy to do in a hazy sky. Left to their own devices, your eyes will focus at about 15 feet, obviously not very useful when you’re trying to spot an aircraft, unless you’re practicing tight formation. Focus on the ground or a nearby cloud to give you a better chance to spot traffic. The farther out you can set your focal point, the better.

Remember that at a range of one mile, two airplanes approaching head on at a mere 150 knots will have barely 10 seconds to see and avoid. At military speeds, the danger becomes even more acute. Two fighters approaching each other at 600 knots have about 2.5 seconds to avoid a collision.


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