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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If you really want to improve your visibility, you could turn on your landing light, but standard tungsten lights are so hot, they burn out in a very short time. One way around that problem is to install one of the new generation of high-intensity xenon lights, such as the LoPresti Boom Beam. These sport a 5,000-hour life (compared to 25 hours on a standard tungsten light), generate about four times the power (400,000 candlepower compared to 100,000 cp with tungsten), use far less electrical power and may be left on for the entire flight. Xenons aren’t cheap (typically $1,000 each), but they’re an excellent investment if they only save your life once. They’re guaranteed to make your airplane far more visible, at least for people in front of you.

Another method of minimizing your exposure to possible midairs is to utilize flight following whenever it’s available. In major terminal areas, you may be turned down more often than not, but it never hurts to ask. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at all the airplanes you didn’t know were there.

Flying higher can reduce the risk as well. Many pilots on short flights prefer to stay low. That’s fine if you don’t mind mixing it up with the training aircraft, but you can reduce the midair risk exponentially by simply flying higher. Most of the time, you’ll only lose a few minutes, and you’ll fly in smoother air, often on top of the haze layer with better visibility.

More intelligent operational procedures can improve your odds against a midair. Prior to initiating a turn, look in the opposite direction first. Pilots too often check only the direction of turn for traffic. Similarly, while climbing or descending, make an occasional S-turn to see what lies ahead. Midair collisions often occur when there’s a vertical component involved. If you’re operating VFR above or below a cloud deck, be especially careful to stay at least 1,000 feet above or 500 feet below the deck, not because there’s a regulation that stipulates those limits (there is), but because it’s just good sense. Climb rates of some corporate and airline jets can exceed 3,000 fpm, whereas most pilots rarely allow descent rates that fast. Therefore, you need to maintain a greater distance above than below a cloud.

Flying at night presents its own set of challenges for collision avoidance. By definition, it’s easier to spot another airplane’s strobe in the dark, and a bright landing light really stands out against the blackness, but there are a few visual tricks here as well. The photosensitive cells in the eye consist of rods and cones. The rods, concentrated in the periphery of the retina, are better adapted for night vision. For that reason, you may be better able to spot a strobe or other light by not looking directly at it. When scanning for other traffic at night, you may find you can spot it at longer range by concentrating on your peripheral vision. This also works when looking for an airport beacon. Even if you have a good idea of where the airport should be, look 30 to 45 degrees to the left or right of that point, and you’ll be more likely to catch the flashing lights.

Apparently, some of the techniques must work, or perhaps I’ve been lucky. My near-collision with the Seneca occurred 17 years ago, and since then, I’ve given traffic a wide berth, at least other traffic that I’ve seen. I may never know how close I’ve come to disaster with airplanes I never saw, and that’s probably just as well.


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