Fishing on the Fishfinder

July 2, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg


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.

Improving the safety record of GA is one of the tenets the AOPA Foundation focuses on. Donations to the Foundation fuel the Air Safety Institute online programs that are geared toward that goal. Support our continued work to keep the skies safe by donating today.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • sfav8r

    The article lead in says:
    When ATC calls out traffic for you, do you reply with something along the lines of “We’re looking'” or “I have them on TCAS?” If so, not only are you deviating from standard FAA phraseology and wasting ATC airtime; you are also posing a serious risk to safety.

    In the article you explain that having a target on TCAS isn’t visually identifying it, but what’s wrong with saying “Were looking?” Is there other standard phraseology that is preferred?

  • Stephen Goetsch

    “We” need to learn a lesson…what is it? That airline pilots are arrogant idiots? What should the Spirit pilot have done? Seems to me it should have immediately avoided getting any closer to the traffic it knew was there before TCAS ordered him to. What should the skydive aircraft have done? He was VFR, and therefore not necessarily in radio communication with ATC. He should have seen the Spirit aircraft, nothing else to be said.

    The ASI Facebook post is all about how “I’m looking” is not a good radio message. Are they really asking pilots NOT to say ANYTHING? What are they asking them to do? See the aircraft? Of course they are trying to.

    Admonishments to do better with a list of “what you did wrong” is not helpful. It could be helpful if combined with “what you should have done instead”. Otherwise it is a useless “tsk tsk”. Give me a break. Again, what, exactly, should be learned from this incident?

  • Mike Kobb

    Agree with the other commenters. The Facebook posting admonished us not to say “We’de looking,” but the article provides no positive alternative. Please update the article and post the update to Facebook. Thanks!

  • Meredith

    My understanding is, when ATC calls traffic, you pause, look, then respond one of two ways: “Negative contact” or “Traffic in sight.” You can always make a new call if your status changes and you gain or lose contact.

  • Avi Weiss

    in addition to the comments posted above, it should also be noted that even if both aircraft had each other VISUALLY, immediate compliance to an RA from TCAS is MANDATORY…as if it came direct from a controller.

    While the Spirit pilot MAY have been able to request and then alter his climb profile and/or heading to “maintain visual separation”, and thus avoiding the issuance of the TCAS RA, the bottom line is unless BOTH pilots acknowledged “traffic in sight, will maintain visual separation”, the onus is on the controller to “separate IFR traffic AND PARTICIPATING VFR traffic”, EVEN IN VMC. Since the Spirit jet was on an IFR flight plan, the controller is just as “culpable”. It is not clear from reports whether the Cessna was participating, but seems like there is enough issues for everyone to improve their traffic avoidance efforts.

  • Darren Rich

    “Springs Approach, 96 Charlie is looking”, is a simple way to acknowledge to ATC that (1) you’ve heard the transmission; and (2) are looking out for traffic. A simple radio call. Once you have contact, “Springs Approach, 96 Charlie, contact, no conflict.” (assuming you have made a determination that you are not closing on a steady bearing) If not, “Springs Approach, 96 Charlie altering left to nine-zero degrees for traffic.”

  • Larry M. Coleman

    I say, and will continue to say, “We’re looking” instead of “Negative contact” precisely because the first one is only three syllables instead of five. (I could pare it down to only two syllables by saying “No joy” but I leave that to the Maverick wannabes who wear flight suits with epaulets on them.) Explain to me again how I’m wasting ATC’s time?

  • Paul Thompson

    Why are folks re-inventing communication?

    The Internationally accepted way of acknowledging to ATC that you have heard their transmission is to “Roger”. Two syllables. ATC say “Roger” to me when they acknowledge my transmissions. What’s the difference?

    Does a pilot *really* need to say that they are “looking for traffic”? What’s the alternative? “Roger. Turning my head to look inside at the Garmin”? Is it not a given that when advised of traffic that you could hit middair – the pilot(s) and intelligent passengers would “look for traffic”?

    Darren – why are you saying (for example) “Springs Approach” at the start of every transmission to an ATC station that you have already made contact with?

    I can imagine your telephone calls: “Hi, Mom. It’s me” “Oh, hi son, How are you?”. “Hi mom, I’m good thanks”. “What are you doing today?”. “Hi mom, I’m going to Wal-Mart”. You should not repeatedly use ground station callsigns once two way communication has been established with an Air Traffic Service Unit and there remains no potential for confusion.

    What was that heading again? 290° did you say?

  • Paul Thompson

    Typo! Para 2. Not “to” Roger – just Roger.

  • Bill Renaud

    The phraseology that I eventually settled on was:
    “Cherokee 12345 …” then either “… is looking.” or “… has the traffic in sight.”

    Using the aircraft call sign at the beginning of the message (which you are supposed to do anyway) gives me 2 seconds to quickly try to spot the traffic. At the end of that part, I then seamlessly add the remaining part of the phrase, depending on whether I have spotted the traffic or not. Sometimes a quick correction radio call is required if I spot the traffic right after giving the “… is looking.” response.

  • Bill Renaud

    Another thought (for extra safety): Maneuver the aircraft as if you have spotted the other aircraft, even if you do not yet have it in sight!

    Years ago, when I was flying as a student pilot, the instructor and I were receiving traffic advisories while heading out to the practice area. ATC called out traffic at roughly the 12 o’clock position (at a slightly different altitude). While I was busy looking for the traffic out the windshield, the instructor took control and turned the plane 20 or 30 degrees to the right. Thinking this over later, I realized that this was definitely better and safer than a mid-air!

    Also, turning an airplane increases its cross-sectional size that is visible to the other aircrew. In daylight, it may also cause the sun to glint or reflect off of the aircraft which will also act like a big strobe light. This should increase the probability that the other aircrew will see you.

  • Chris Rodrigues

    Bruce, concerning the PSA 727/Cessna 172 midair in San Diego, I assume that you meant to say that that the 727 “rear ended”, rather than “backed into”, the Cessna since the Cessna was in front of him. Just clearing the fog…

    Personally, I always use ATC Flight Following when it’s available and I reply to ATC initial traffic calls “(ATC call sign), (my call sign) has the traffic in sight” or “(ATC call sign), (my call sign) looking”, as appropriate. If I called “…, looking” and, after about 10 seconds of fruitless searching I have not spotted the other aircraft, I will call “(ATC call sign), (my call sign), No Joy on the traffic”.

    I don’t fly in high density airspace and ATC radio band width is not a problem locally, except during the Masters Golf Tournement (during which I fly somewhere else!) or near Atlanta. To me, clarity trumps brevity every time in ATC communications. “Roger” is certainly correct for replying to ATC giving me an updated altimeter setting or instructions such as “Report (destination) in sight”, but coordinating potential conflict with other aircraft indicates danger of a midair collision calls for me to reasonably remove as much uncertainty from my communications with ATC as possible. “… looking” verifies to ATC that I heard their warning and am actively searching for, but have not immediately located, the traffic. My second transmission of “… No Joy” after a short, but unsuccessful, search lets ATC know I am blind to the traffic and may need addition guidance for safe avoidance. Of course, “(ATC call sign), (my call sign) has the traffic in sight” is always preferable, just not always possible.

    For those our there who sniff at “No Joy on the traffic” as only for Maverick wannabees, that’s their problem, not mine. It’s a brief, univerally understood expression for “No visual contact with the traffic” or “I don’t have the traffic in sight.”. Shorter and conveying more emphasis (my opinion). Never had ATC correct me or question its meaning…

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  • Jason

    Ugh…”got ’em on the fishfinder” – Hate when pilots say that. They sound like idiots