They’re out there waiting for us. Lurking, often invisible, and then pouncing with devastating swiftness. While V-Raptors haven’t been seen on the planet for a few million years, the collision possibility with another aircraft will have much the same effect (although one usually isn’t eaten after the encounter).
The Wright brothers had no worries about midair collisions until the second aircraft was introduced and we’ve had to be on guard ever since. Last week, an F-16 and a Cessna 150 collided between 1,500′ and 2,000′ agl near a small nontowered airport in South Carolina, with tragic consequences.
The jet, based at Shaw AFB just up the road to the north, was practicing instrument approaches at nearby joint-use Charleston AFB/International Airport (CHS). It’s home to a USAF C-17 wing, a moderately busy airline terminal, and the usual mix of light and heavy GA aircraft. The weather was VFR so primary separation was based on the principle of see and avoid.
From the NTSB’s preliminary report: “At 1057:41, a radar target displaying a visual flight rules transponder code of 1200, and later correlated to be the accident Cessna, appeared in the vicinity of the departure end of runway 23 at MKS [Berkeley County Airport] , at an indicated altitude of 200 feet. The Cessna continued its climb, and began tracking generally southeast over the next 3 minutes. For the duration of its flight, the pilot of the Cessna did not contact CHS approach control, nor was he required to do so. At 1100:18, the controller advised the pilot of the F-16, ‘traffic 12 o’clock, 2 miles, opposite direction, 1,200 [feet altitude] indicated, type unknown.’ The F-16 pilot responded and advised the controller that he was ‘looking’ for the traffic. At 1100:26, the controller advised the F-16 pilot, ‘turn left heading 180 if you don’t have that traffic in sight.’ The pilot responded by asking, ‘confirm 2 miles?’ Eight seconds later, the controller stated, ‘if you don’t have that traffic in sight turn left heading 180 immediately.’ Over the next 18 seconds, the track of the F-16 began turning southerly.” The collision occurred shortly after that—there will be more precise information in the final report.
What about see and avoid? To avoid, one has to see first. In some circumstances it works exceptionally well but in others, not so much. As always, there are multiple factors that become ever so clear in hindsight. Cessna 150s are not known for stellar cockpit visibility despite many other excellent attributes. However, F-16s were designed with the fighter pilot’s adage in mind—lose sight and lose the fight. But no matter what we’re flying, if we’re not looking at the right place at the right time, something could bite us faster than the feared velociraptor in Jurassic Park—especially with high speeds involved.
A nasty reality of physics is that objects on a collision course will not appear to move. They stay small and unobtrusive, sometimes visible to the pilot and sometimes hidden. Then, suddenly, the intruder aircraft explodes into full view growing very quickly, but by then it’s often too late to avoid.
With a big sky and not many aircraft, the odds of a collision on any day in any location are small—but obviously, where traffic congregates the potential goes up. GA-on-GA collisions are largely within several miles of an airport in good weather. Typically, there are between five and 10 collisions annually. The numbers have been gradually declining which could be due to reduced flight activity, more aircraft being equipped with traffic advisory equipment, or more likely a combination of both. It’s not because pilots have become better traffic spotters.
Military-on-GA collisions are rare, thankfully, due to the efforts to keep the fast movers in mostly sanitized airspace such as restricted areas or Military Operations Areas (MOAs). However, in this case, the jet was down low and the pilot was likely very busy getting set up for the approach—we’ll know more when the investigation is complete. Most military fighters have to move fast in the pattern because they may get a bit wobbly below 200 knots.
There hasn’t been a midair collision between GA and an air carrier since a Piper Cherokee smacked a DC-9 over Cerritos, California, in 1986. That led to the requirement for Mode C (altitude reporting) transponders for anyone flying in the airspace listed below (with a few exceptions) and the development of Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) for all airliners:
- Operations within Class A, Class B, and Class C airspace.
- Operations within 30 nautical miles of the primary airport within Class B airspace from the surface to 10,000 feet msl.
- Operations above the ceiling and within the lateral boundaries of Class B and C airspace.
- Operations above 10,000 feet msl in the contiguous 48 states, excluding the airspace at and below 2,500 feet agl.
TCAS and Mode C essentially resolved the air carrier collision problem but it cost everyone a lot of money.
The FAA’s new mandate requiring most aircraft to be equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) “out” equipment will take effect in about five years. (Learn about AOPA’s position on ADS-B in this Air Traffic Services Brief on ADS-B, and learn more about ADS-B technology in AOPA’s online resources page.) It’s not cheap, but then neither were Mode C transponders, which still must be carried because of the TCAS gear on airliners.
I’m conflicted on several things here: The FAA will save hundreds of millions of dollars annually by decommissioning a lot of radars, but it will provide no help on equipage for the airlines, GA, or the military. There is no relief from having to carry Mode C, and at this writing the FAA requires a certificated “out” unit to get the benefits of seeing traffic and weather uplinked to any aircraft if equipped with ADS-B “in” equipment. Portable and non-certificated gear (much less expensive) need not apply. Maybe it’s time to rethink that.
Having the good fortune to fly with a certificated unit (bit the bullet this spring) I see all the traffic that ATC sees—essentially “built-in flight following” that is not controller-workload dependent. It allows to me to visually acquire MUCH more traffic than I spot using the famed Mark VIII eyeball. It’s not perfect but it’s so much better than any pilot’s scan pattern—especially mine. In this case, I’ll place my bet on the technology every time.
Mind the V-Raptors—they’re out there…
Additional Air Safety Institute resources for collision avoidance: