Onboard Saviors!

August 9, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

I admit to being a little less enthusiastic when it comes to too much technology in light GA cockpits. We’ve discussed that new pilots get mesmerized learning glass when they need to learn basic airmanship. Those comments stand, but there are areas where technology is a significant improvement over humans, and we got a big reminder of it recently. New York air traffic controllers had a “deal” of monstrous proportions in January 2011 when an American Airlines Boeing 777 came within 10 wingtip lengths (2,000′) of colliding with an Air Force C-17 cargo jet at Flight Level 220.

The near midair collision (NMAC) occurred 88 miles east of New York City in some of the most highly congested airspace on the planet. Two controllers failed to communicate, and one did not stop the climb of the American jet despite being told to do so by the other controller. As in many aircraft accidents, distraction played a key role as one controller was dealing with another aircraft. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), that is required equipment on airline aircraft, sounded off, and the American jet made several evasive maneuvers over the course of a few seconds to avoid catastrophe. The NTSB investigated the incident.

What does this have to do with many of us flying light GA beneath Class A airspace? Last week, while approaching our home base from the west on an IFR flight plan, evasive action was needed to avoid VFR traffic maneuvering in the practice area that is about 15 miles west of the airport. The aircraft I was flying was G1000 -equipped, with a collision avoidance system. The target popped up literally two miles ahead, 12 o’clock, and at our altitude. The controller suddenly advised an immediate left turn—I had already disengaged the autopilot and was rapidly rolling left when the call came! Weather was hazy VFR, and we had just descended out of a 3,500′ broken deck, leveling at 3,000′.

This is not to bash ATC, because the traffic may not have immediately appeared on her scope either, but to support the fact that our avoidance systems, although they don’t necessarily meet airline standards, will spot more traffic more consistently than the so-called Mark-VIII eyeball. Heads-up and eyes-out is essential when near airports because that’s where the collisions occur, but I’ve had several instances where the technology prevented a close encounter or worse.

In my view, training aircraft could do without some of the Flight Management System gingerbread, but they sure could benefit from collision avoidance gear. CFIs and students spend much of their time in practice areas and in the traffic pattern, usually not with ATC assistance. A significant number of MACs involved training flights. Here is an area where the technology is not a distraction, and it is passive—i.e., it doesn’t require the pilot to do anything until an action is needed—that’s the best kind of equipment.

My hope is that the accuracy will increase and prices will continue to come down. Portable/ iPad-type devices need a healthy dose of this type of application—soon! It will save lives.


Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Fred von Zabern

    Agreed Bruce! On several occasions TIS has shown traffic within 2 nm, heading my way, before I saw it or the controller called it. My eyes aren’t as good as they were 40 years ago, but all the more reason to have this worthy piece of equipment. With it, comes training…it has its limitations, and differences.

    The other worthy piece of equipment is XM weather…but a lot has already been written about this. Only reason for mentioning, is this equipment is so helpful for coming up with a plan “B”, and could really cut down on weather accidents if more widely used.

  • john dukesherer

    If airports had ADS-B out boxes running (in tower or fbo) then ALL low priced (SkyRadar, etc) ADS-B in boxes would show ALL traffic with transponder on the Ipad along with the free weather that is already there. What an investment for the saftey of us low lifes.
    I would not go back to any other type nav, weather, traffic system after 1 1/2 years of use.

  • Don Eck

    I heartily agree. When my regional airline first got TCAS II in 1992, I was initially concerned I would become complacent through using, and not scanning visually enough. What I discovered was that it actually increased my awareness by alerting me to targets well before they were within visual range, and prompting me to scan more. The effect is similar to receiving ATC traffic advisories.

    However, one must never forget that none of these technologies, including ADS-B, can “see” all traffic; only those who are participating and whose equipment is functioning properly.

  • Mark C

    I know that each situation needs to be evaluated and the appropriate action taken, but doesn’t the AIM state that when on a collision course with another aircraft, each pilot is to deviate to the right?