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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Also, remember that even in CAVU conditions, you may not be able to spot a small aircraft beyond one mile. (A truly large target such as a C5 or 747 may be easier to see.) Years ago, I participated in an FAA-sponsored test of a GPS-based collision avoidance system. We had a perfect day for the tests over the Catalina Channel off Los Angeles, with visibility better than 50 miles, and the GPS-TCAS system worked well, but one of the more interesting fallouts of that experiment was that none of the four pilots on board the Beech 58 Baron I was flying could spot another airplane beyond about a mile, despite knowing the target’s exact altitude, range and clock position. All four pilots had reasonable eyesight, but unless a target caught the glint of the sun, we usually couldn’t spot it beyond a mile.

(Chuck Yeager, the USAF pilot who became an ace during WWII in the European theater then went on to become the first person to bust the speed of sound, attributes much of his success in combat to his excellent eyesight. “It was simple,” he says. “I could spot them before they could spot me.”)

The wing placement probably has very little impact on midair susceptibility. The debate between high wing and low wing has raged since most designers abandoned two wings for one. Personal preference and training experience probably play a greater role than actual utility.

For touring and sightseeing, high wings are definitely better, as they provide a superior view of the ground, and that’s what most people want to see on cross-country flights. For collision avoidance, the low-wing design may have a slight edge because it provides a less restricted view of the airspace above. Also, the low-wing airplane enjoys better visibility during the base and final turns because the wing doesn’t block the view of the airport environment and runway.

There are several ways you can improve your chances of being spotted by other pilots. The most obvious is lighting. Strobe lights should be on anytime the aircraft is in flight, not just at night. Strobes can be seen from several miles away, even when the airplane is still invisible.


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