Archive for March, 2012

Eyes in the back of your head?

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Last week we discussed how glass-equipped cockpits didn’t seem to make a big safety difference. This week the discussion comes from the opposite direction (No – I’m not running for office!).

It was great VFR day.  There was clearly pent up demand and quite a number of us were aloft. I was taking a friend on an intro flight (as we’ve asked all of you to do to help people to understand GA better or get interested in flying.)  I’ve noted before that new pilots tend to be a bit overwhelmed with the phenomenal number of features that now grace even basic airplanes.  The G-1000-equipped machine we were flying provided a panoramic view to the outside, but my friend was locked on the panel despite my periodic reminders to a) look outside and enjoy the view and b) help me look for traffic.

Although not on flight following for such a short flight, it made sense to just listen in on the tracon frequency. I suppose it could be argued that one should be on flight following on every flight, but unless it’s high density traffic that seems like overkill.  Hold that thought.

We’d been lurking on frequency for several minutes when I glanced down at the multifunction display (MFD) and noticed that a target had popped up at our six o’clock, about one mile behind and within 100 feet of our altitude. Just about the same time, the controller advised an Aerostar that he had traffic at 12 o’clock, less than a mile at 4,500. That sure sounded like us! When a star collides with anything there’s often a supernova and the closure rate between us would have been about 50 knots. Prudence dictated a change in plan.

I politely took the controls from my friend in the left seat, told him we were going to make a descending left turn and we scooted down to 2,900. The Aerostar pilot meanwhile advised ATC that he didn’t see us and made no mention of altering course. Sure enough, about a minute later he motored by, still oblivious to our presence.

There is no question that the traffic display was extremely helpful and even if I was the best scanner on the planet, most of us don’t check our sixes very often. We depend on the other guy – not such a great idea. I  believe that trainers need traffic avoidance gear more than cross-country flyers because they spend much more time in the congested airspace of traffic patterns and local practice areas where most collisions occur. They are also often the older birds in the fleet and least likely to have it.

You’ll continue to hear more about ADS-B as the FAA gets closer to its long-awaited Nextgen system. While it has the potential of eliminating midair collisions there are numerous challenges, perhaps more economic than technical, to be worked out. My hope is that they will be so that we can avoid the proverbial bad day after the collision.

For now, remember to keep your head on a swivel, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a traffic avoidance system remember that it still isn’t 100%  but it’s a lot better than nothing!