There was an incident over Michigan recently involving a Spirit Airlines Airbus A319 and an aircraft carrying skydivers. The FAA’s statement noted:
Air traffic controllers notified the Spirit pilot that a skydiving jump plane was climbing just south of the jetliner’s position. The Spirit pilot confirmed that he could see the smaller aircraft on his Terminal Collision Avoidance System. A minute later, the Spirit jet received an automated TCAS warning that required him to begin an immediate 1,600-foot descent to 12,800 feet from a previous altitude of 14,400 feet.
The two aircraft were reported to be 1.6 miles apart horizontally and 400 feet vertically.
The Associated Press interviewed frightened passengers who were understandably upset with the rapid change of direction. Two flight attendants were injured. According to the AP, “Addressing why the two planes got dangerously close, the FAA pointed to the smaller plane’s pilot. ‘The skydiving plane was flying under Visual Flight Rules, under which pilots are responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft.’” That also applies to IFR aircraft in VMC—something the FAA spokesperson may have forgotten to mention
Without blaming anyone…yet…a review of the rules might be appropriate. The AIM notes, “When meteorological conditions permit, regardless of the type of flight plan or whether or not under the control of a radar facility, the pilot is responsible to see and avoid other traffic.”
Seeing another aircraft on TCAS or other traffic-in-the-cockpit device (aka, the fishfinder) does NOT constitute visually identifying the other aircraft. Advising the controller that you’ve, “got ‘em on the fishfinder,” “the box,” or TCAS is wasted airtime as far as ATC is concerned. There are only two options: either you have the other aircraft visually or not. ATC will then respond accordingly.
Jump aircraft are required to coordinate with ATC prior to the jump to avoid precisely this type of encounter, so presumably the controllers knew about the aircraft.
It’s good to deconstruct this incident, not for the purposes of punishment but for education of all concerned because had there been a collision, there would have been multiple losers: the aircraft occupants, ATC, and GA who would invariably be blamed in the court of public opinion. This happened decades ago when a PSA Boeing 727 “backed into” a Cessna 172 in San Diego that was in front of it and had been pointed out by ATC.
There has not been a GA-airline midair since the 1986 collision between a DC-9 and a PA-28 over Cerritos, California. 67 aboard the two aircraft and 15 persons on the ground were lost. This is what led to the development of TCAS and the requirement for Mode C transponders in much of our airspace. We don’t need to travel that road again and should learn from this airline-jump plane close call.
Wishing you safe flights on this holiday weekend.
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