Eyes in the back of your head?

March 7, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

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!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • David Reinhart

    ADS-B offers the possibility of pilots becoming even more complacent about looking for traffic. I was in the back seat of a Warrior one day on a short flight. The two pilots up front were watching TIS traffic being displayed on the aircraft owners new Garmin 530. While they were busy looking at targets, I spotted a glider ahead and off to our left. Since it didn’t have a transponder, it wasn’t showing up on the “fish finder”. Since he was flying in airspace that will not require ADS-B Out, the same situation is completely plausible under NextGen.

  • Brian Knoblauch

    It would be handy if it was affordable. I’ve had a few somewhat close calls VFR, but the worst was IFR. Almost had a head-on with a non-participating light twin in IMC. ATC was doing the best they could and I did an emergency climb at their recommendation (which saved my life as he flashed (and it was just a quick flash as visibility was so poor) by right where I would have been). If I’d had on-board traffic it would have helped my situational awareness and my avoidance considerably!

  • Brian Turrisi

    Good example of what we call situational awareness. It works and keeping an eye out the window works too.
    The idea of having traffic systems in the plane is not to make us our own controllers directing traffic.
    The purpose of our systems is to make us focus where to look to see that traffic that is often hard to see. Our systems are not a true TCAS and therefore should not be used to alter course without having the traffic displayed in sight. The target you see may not be where you think it is unless your eyes spot it.
    When a target is behind you on a clear VFR day, changing altitude is fine but remmeber ATC told the “Star” to look at 4500 feet and now you went somewhere else.

  • Lawrence Stalla

    Bruce, I agree that ADS-B would be a valuable assist to my “see-and-avoid” strategy, but unfortunately, my attempt four months ago to equip my Mooney with ADS-B Out was thwarted by the FAA’s “Approval for ADS-B Out Systems” policy memo dated 30 August 2010 (http://www.airweb.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library%5CrgPolicy.nsf/0/34A9674F068FB64D86257790006D038A). Any word on when this policy might be lifted or relaxed, so that those of us who want to get started toward compliance with the 2020 ADS-B Mandate can do so?

  • Jim McSherry

    The desirability of redundant systems is a better conclusion. I do a good bit of training in fairly busy airspace (under Class B),some in TIS-equipped craft, some without; listening to the approach controller is a common practice even when not talking to them. TIS equipment also has the annoying habit of -almost once a flight – announcing “traffic!” based on our own transponder. I put the traffic system in the same bucket with moving map: very desirable, not necessary, and used with judgment.
    The decision ought not be made on cost, but the utility in the pilot’s own situation. Around the Balto-to-Boston corridor, it is VERY useful; in Nebraska, maybe not so much.
    My glider club, PGC, just installed transponders last year, and will be using the new 1202 code this season for this very reason.

  • Cary Alburn

    I agree that it would be nice if all of us could see all of us all the time, but substituting equipment for looking, following the rules, and using some common sense isn’t likely to change anything. Although it’s somewhat speculative, the likelihood that a couple of mid-airs in the last few years, one at Boulder and one at Rock Springs, both involving well equipped Cirrus, may very well have been avoided had the pilots been looking through the glass outside instead of at the glass inside.

    As you pointed out, the most common danger area is the pattern. But not all pilots pay attention to what is going on there, where other aircraft are or are likely to be. They just motor on, as if there are no other aircraft nearby. Here are a couple of examples:

    Too often, I find myself arguing with pilots over whether to use a checklist in the pattern—but doing so means flying blind for at least several seconds at a time. At normal pattern speeds for trainers, during a 5 second lapse from looking, the aircraft travels well more than the length of a football field. My argument: If you need a pre-landing checklist, look at it well before you get into the pattern.

    A couple of years ago, I had a near mid-air in the pattern at GXY. It was a beautiful busy Saturday morning, with several aircraft in the pattern using 09, with a TPA of 800′ AGL. A local Skylane was shooting practice IFR approaches and broke off his ILS to 34 at 800′ AGL–and shot right through the downwind for 9 so close in front of me that I could see the rivets on the airplane.

    We need to do more to be sure we are seen by others, in hopes that they will be looking. When I bought my airplane 8 years ago, it had the bare minimum lighting for night flight: position lights, landing/taxi lights, and a rotating beacon. Soon after purchase, I had wingtip strobes installed, then changed out the landing/taxi lights with HID lights and then added a Pulselite circuit to flash them. During the annual it is undergoing right now, a strobe light is being substituted for the rotating beacon. I run the strobes and beacon all of the time, and I turn on the pulsing landing/taxi lights well before I get into the pattern. Yet every time I’m at the airport, I see aircraft in the pattern with no lights on at all, including no beacon.

    The most sophisticated traffic avoidance gear won’t mean a thing, if it’s not used or if it’s used improperly at inappropriate times. Even when every single aircraft is fully equipped with all of such bells and whistles, it will never substitute for old-fashioned awareness—and that means not only looking outside, but recognizing that the big sky isn’t all that big at times.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    I’ve forwarded your request on to the AOPA Gov’t Affairs for their response on the status of ADS-B. It’s been pointed out that the equipment is a supplement when visual – not a guarantee.

    A little paranoia when flying is never a bad thing. Thanks for all the comments!

  • Nick

    I fly a mix of rental aircraft – some with traffic displays, some without. Like all things, I appreciate the increased SA with the traffic display, but don’t become a slave to it. I disagree with the assertion by some that ADS-B or traffic displays will make the situation even worse. If you’re so easily distracted by gadgets and displays, you’re already a subpar pilot and a danger to the rest of us, whether or not you have traffic displays in the cockpit. It’s easily remedied – go up with an instructor and practice the four fundamentals with the instruments covered up. It’s fun and keeps your eyes where they should be.

    I think my real awakening when first flying with in-cockpit traffic was how much I DIDN’T see. Trying to find a small aircraft at a distance of more than 2 miles is no easy task, particularly if they are in the clutter just below the horizon. I use flight following on just about every flight (or monitor local frequencies when just punching a hole in the sky), and have found that several times, I wasn’t made aware of traffic on a conflicting course. It’s not ATC’s fault, they’re helping me on a workload-permitting basis, but I notice on my flights with traffic displays I’m altering course long before I’m within see-and-avoid range if it appears there could be a conflict ahead. It also helps me find that traffic more than 2 miles out that I would have never seen with a traditional scan.

    Nothing will alleviate the PIC’s responsibility to see-and-avoid. But in-cockpit traffic, like in-cockpit weather, is an excellent aid to situational awareness.

    Have fun, but fly safe!

  • Jim McCord

    Last summer I upgraded an Archer for IFR training at our local school with a GTN750 and Garmin TAS (not TIS) traffic. As others have said you still must look outside as there are airplanes that should have transponders turned on but don’t (now I know who they are!), HOWEVER I’ve found the traffic system very, very helpful, especially on a VFR day, doing IFR instruction where I’m monitoring the student (who’s under the hood) AND scanning for traffic. It is a high workload environment for a CFII. The traffic system also makes it MUCH quicker to find traffic called by ATC (more precise direction and distance) and often I am aware of, and find the traffic visually before they call.

    Although midair’s are a “low rate” accident I sure like the peace of mind in having a second set of eyes when my students are under the hood.

  • Sydney King

    Several years ago I was at 5500 feet about 80 miles from my home-drome and about 20 miles from a busy small-town airport which I would pass at a distance of 5 miles to the side. Suddenly my TCAS alerted me to traffic at my 8 o’clock and inside of 3 miles. After some neck craning I verified that a twin, considerably faster than me, was indeed heading for an intersept with me. I climbed 1000 feet and watched as he passed directly below me and disappeared into the haze of to my right front. I descended to my assigned altitude and a few minutes later contacted approach control at my home to get approach clearance. After granting clearance the controller asked if I was a flight of 2. I assured him I was alone and he told me that there was another craft off to my right and closing. Just then my TCAS alerted me to approaching traffic at my 4 o’clock. Approach had me climb 1000 feet and we both watched him pass directly below me once more.

    I don’t know if he would have eventually seen me when he got closer but I am quite sure that I would not have seen him coming at me from behind as he did. I consider the purchase price of the TCAS money very well spent. I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t be well advised to install rear-view mirrors like we have on our cars.

  • Dave Wallis

    I was almost hit once flying to Oshkosh by a pilot flying his glass panel and not his airplane around 4500 msl. Let’s remember that Light Sport Aircraft, Skydivers, Ultralights, Gliders, Hang Gliders, Power Parachute’s, Power Para-gliders, LS Weight Shift Trikes, Balloons and Antique Aircraft with no electrical systems are out there. Some of us Sport Pilots fly up to the 10K limit for Sport Pilot Rules and most don’t have transponders usually flying outside of B,C,D, controlled airspace as required by FAR’s.

    Don’t let your glass panel kill either of us.

  • Charlie Branch

    1946 Aeronca Champion… so it’s true there’s lots of money on aviation because we’re putting it there. I hope to install (it’s been a few years so now it’s) LED wingtip combo (red/green with rear and strobe anti-collision) lights when the old Delco generator is swapped for an alternator system and lighter weight starter. I proceed on the premise that (antique? vintage?) airplanes should be permitted replacement with newer and more reliable components (external disc vs. internal drum brakes, for example). Conflicting traffic isn’t just limited to that in the air; at 4SD, we’ve seen vehicle drivers rolling through blind corner stop (signs) while taxiing toward the hangars. Right of way doesn’t really matter as any collision will ruin everybody’s day in boats, cars. planes or trains.

  • Dudley Johnston

    Bought my first airplane 6 years ago with a basic VFR panel, cruising speed 90 knots. At that speed I tended to not worry about who I might run into, but who I might back into. With poor 4 – 8 o’clock visability I opted for the Zaon to help find those approaching my 6. Good investment. No azimuth but when something appeared my head was on a swivel.