Big Sky – Little Airplane(s)

August 14, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

The theory that wide open spaces generally preclude two aircraft from swapping paint or worse was put to the test this past weekend when a Cessna 172 collided in VFR conditions with a Cirrus SR22. Random events have been happening with some frequency (see last weeks blog) and yet they remain statistically unusual. In 2006 there were 6 midairs, in 2005 there were 10 according to ASF’s Nall reports.

As we tend to look at these mishaps a bit clinically, perhaps to maintain a level of objectivity and sanity, my condolences go to all – family and friends. These events are reminders of the responsibilities that we carry as PICs. This also applies to students since the C172 pilot was a student. Again, we are in the preliminary stages so little detailed information is available. The Cirrus was on an IFR flight plan, and had been in communication with ATC, planning to land at Rock Springs, Wyoming (KRKS). The aircraft was likely on a visual approach and had been released to the CTAF when it collided with the Cessna who was not on the ATC frequency, nor was he required to be.The parachute system on the Cirrus was partially deployed but it’s too soon to know if that was a function of the collision or whether the pilot activated it.

This midair fits the collision profile perfectly of being within a few miles of a non-towered airport in VFR weather. I’ve flown into RKS before. It’s not exactly high density traffic, which reinforces the point that other aircraft are where you find them, not where you expect them to be.

I’m a big believer in getting off the IFR communication line and on to the VFR CTAF party line as soon as possible. If neither frequency is too busy, you can multi-task by listening on both but it can get really garbled when both freqs are alive together. As IFR pilots, we operate in both worlds and have to play by two sets of rules simultaneously. It’s also too soon to tell if one aircraft ran down the other or turned inappropriately. That will be settled by NTSB.

There will probably be some comment regarding glass multi-function displays with traffic avoidance capability and parachute escape systems since the Cirrus was so equipped (parachute – yes; traffic display – maybe). These are intended as aids, not as replacements to the primary tenets of airmanship. I’ve used traffic avoidance systems to good effect on many occasions, but until we get all aircraft equipped with ADS-B or some equivalent, remember that VFR bogeys may not always show up on the glass. Transponder operation and radar coverage play into that. VFR or IFR – look (outside) and listen. It’s really important – even in Big Sky country (with apologies to Montana.)

Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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29 Responses to “Big Sky – Little Airplane(s)”

  1. Bradford King Says:

    I invested in the most inexpensive traffic avoidance gaget on the market for my vintage IFR Cessna 172 XP. The vertical seperation indication has been very good for keeping a suprise from happening. The range is ok. There is no bearing, (you get what you pay for). The air space around KSEA tends to make the VFR planes end up getting close. Fresh AA batteries are on my check list.

  2. waymon anderson Says:

    It would help if pilots would turn there landing light(s) on when close to any airport especially in the traffic pattern. I have pulsating lights that help ATC see me sooner at towered fields.

  3. Robert Staight Says:

    Hi Bruce,
    Realley enjoy and get a lot out of your safety blogs. Having received my license in 1954 I try not to be a reactionary. But the Rock Springs, WY accident is a typical doctors accident. Too much money and too little skill and common sense.
    They think if they throw money at the airplane it will make them safe.It used to be Bonanzas, now it is Cirrus.
    What a shame!
    BOB

  4. THOMAS BREZA Says:

    CHEAP SHOT PROBABLY FROM SOMEONE WHO CAN’T AFFORD A CIRRUS. REREAD THE BLOG ROBERT

  5. Sid Adams Says:

    So to the gentleman with the comment “probably cant afford a Cirrus”….lets not make GA a richman’s private club…inappropriate comment….and yes I could afford one

  6. Miguel Edwards Says:

    Not sure how or why the comments lead to $$$/Cirrus/exclusivity. What I do know is folks died here and constructive ideas to learn from and avoid these types of accidents is what’s needed. I have seen a few close calls at my non-towered airport. I’m thinking something – technologically or regulatory – needs to be done. I for one would vote to make standard pattern entry mandatory and enforceable, along with radio use and announcements.

  7. Gilbert Pierce Says:

    Those of you who depend on your expensive traffic avoidance hardware do not forget that there are lot airplanes out there with no transponder and possibly no radio.
    Don’t think your traffic aviodance equipment is a substitute for looking out the window.

  8. Patrick Scott Says:

    Midairs are generally tragic, so taking a shot at either party is inappropriate; we do not have them to interview and truly analyze the accident. The final accident result will be created from data and not eye witnesses. Maybe it was a high wing/low wing situation that does occur because of sight line differences.

    Traffic avoidance equipment may have helped but certainly these systems are not failsafe…all the current equipment comes with issues. Hopefully they will give one a warning and alert one into action. Maybe this tragic accident will remind us that we need extra vigilence when approaching any airport or flying over a facility–check points, intersections–along our route.

  9. PAUL ROSSMAN Says:

    Really the only thing that really matters is that we all use dilagence in our pilotage and exhaust all of our skills when we are approaching or entering a traffic pattern. Some times we get complacent in our duties as a pilot and all the instruments avaliable wont save the day. Be safe

  10. Jenny Robinson Says:

    This sure is an eye opener. When my husband bought our new Beech Baron with a glass cockpit including TCAS, I thought “oh good, now I can read or follow the scenery on the ground”. On our next trip I’ll be sure to start scanning the sky aingain.

  11. Cary Alburn Says:

    The fact is that we “fly blind” even in good weather. In 35 years of flying, partly for business but mostly for pleasure, I’ve had ATC call out traffic many, many times that I never saw. Until it fills your windshield (I had that happen just a few months ago), airplanes as close as half to quarter mile just aren’t easily visible, unless they’re airliner size.

    On the way from GXY to OSH and back this year, I was in constant contact with ATC on IFR flight plans. Traffic was called to me regularly, literally dozens of times. My passenger is also a pilot. Only once did we see the called traffic, and that was a Caravan only half a mile off our wing.

    “See and avoid” is therefore a misnomer–because it’s too hard to “see” no matter how vigilant we are. So although it’s tempting to do some blaming, and at some point the NTSB will do that for us, the fact is that both of these pilots may have been doing what they should have been doing, and just didn’t see each other.

    But I agree that anything we can do to make ourselves more visible to others makes sense. I turn on my landing lights (HIDs on my 1963 Cessna P172D) within 10 miles of landing, and I run my strobes and tail flasher at all times (except in the clouds at night, when I turn off the strobes). But I know that’s not enough.

    Cary

  12. Javier Muniz Says:

    I agree with Cary it is very difficult to spot other aircraft in the air and when your dealing with high closure rates there’s not alot of time to react. Since the facts are still so sparce about the accident at this time I would ask to withhold assumptions about what the pilots did until the NTSB releases the report.
    However, I ask myself how can I improve my situation awareness not so much for myself, but for others. TCAS is great , but it’s expensive and relies on transponders which some forget to even turn them on. I for one have forgotten at least once despite looking through my check list before taking off. So what I’m getting to is use your eyes look out the window, use the radio we are at the mercy of everyone else when we fly into non towered airports, report position accurately and recurrently, use the technology that you have at hand. In the end you may try it all and still find yourself in close proximity to others. Because all tools we utilize have there room for error and no matter what we try there is always room for “an act of God”

  13. Harry Leicher Says:

    Halfway through my first day of trainng at the Columbia factory in a brand new plane with the latest in traffic avoidance (verbal warnings of “Traffic, 11 o’clock, high – opposite direction”), I asked the check pilot: “Isn’t one of us supposed to be looking out the window?”

    He agreed, and mentioned I was the first pilot he had checked out who had asked that question.

    One problem with the new equipment is that it presents so much information on the panel, it is difficult to find the time to look out the window. Flying a plane with no gyros or no nav radios makes that task much easier.

    Most airspace in this country below 10,000 feet does not require transponders. Also, most of the airspace in the U.S. does not require radio communication. If you are flying in that airspace, you should not rely on a transponder based collision avoidance system, or on radio calls.

    If you want to rely on a transponder based avoidance system or radio calls, limit your flying to airspace requiring transponders or radio communication.

    Also realize that one of the traffic avoidance systems (TIS) relies on approach control radar. If you’re out of that coverage, your electronic avoidance system is about as useful as a blindfold.

    Although we may never know why the pilots did not avoid each other, there’s one basic rule we cannot forget:

    LOOK OUT THE WINDOW

  14. Ronald Coleman Says:

    The FAA has for years been remiss in preaching “see and avoid” as the ultimate solution to this problem. The fact is that “see and avoid” is not able to prevent these accidents because we simply do not see much of the traffic around us – even when we know it is there.

    The FAA should be on an aggressive campaign to develop affordable and reliable collision avoidance hardware and require installation in every aircraft that takes to the sky – with a possible exemption allowed for class G airspace.

    ATP, CFIAI, B777, B756, B727, DC9, B747 and “little airplane” fan (Mooney and Ercoupe)

  15. Matt Bowers Says:

    Cary explains it best.
    Most of my time is in a C172XP with GNS-430 and TIS. TIS is lame compared to TCAS. But, I still loved it.
    Flying south from San Jose, CA to South County, the TIS showed 13 different targets in the very short trip. Even using the TIS and then both of us pilots looking hard we were able to spot almost none of the planes.

    Although looking out the window is a good practice, it doesn’t really provide that much except in the pattern.

    A couple days ago, I had a Bonanza or Mooney pass across my path while flying at 9500′. He was not at the proper altitude. I sure wish my new plane had some type of traffic in it!

    I’m really hoping that 20yrs from now we will all have transponders that give out GPS information and then we can have the option of buying receivers that will receive this. I’ll definitely buy it then.

  16. J.Byrnes Says:

    In this day and age something must be done about experimental and older aircraft flying intentionally with no radios.There is no valid excuse.It is a very helpful addition at nontowered airports.

  17. Bill Strawn Says:

    In the last week I put 27 VFR hours behind the yoke of my (40 year old) 182, flying from south Texas to Michigan, Ohio and Pennslybvania and home, landing at uncontrolled airports at every stop. I request flight following every chance I get, and the controllers were feeding me traffic calls on every leg. But unless it was a E-145 or larger, I never saw the traffic. But trust me, I looked long and hard, and turned on the strobes when the calls got close. The last leg was at night, and ATC called converging traffic at my altitude, that was not talking to them. I hit the strobes, and within seconds the other airplane turned their strobes on. So keep looking and have every light you have on to help the other guy see you. As to TIS and TCAS, technology does not always guarantee safety, so requiring something that may or may not increase visibility may not be the answer.

  18. Ed Pearson Says:

    Some years ago, I was in a Luscombe without a radio landing at an uncontrolled field following pattern procedures. Before turning base to final, I lifted the wing to see a low wing Piper coming straight in high and hot. I pushed the stick so hard my passenger and I both were against the seatbelts. We missed by about five feet. The Piper pilot said he had made his calls and never saw me.

    I wish to take issue with Bob Straight’s comment; I knew and worked with the Cirrus pilot and considered him a good one. Aside from the insensitivity towards the family who might read this blog, unless he was there, how could he make a judgement as to who was at fault. It will probably be catgorized as a classic high/low wing encounter with plenty of blame to go around. Most of our time flying should be spent looking outside, especially near airports.

  19. Paul Platt Says:

    Both pilots in the Cirrus were 1,000+ hour pilots. The copilot usually flies an Aztec. Some of the posts here seem to imply that it just had to be the fault of the guys in the Cirrus. Besides, they were doctors (I’m not BTW). Well, everyone, including 172 pilots are responsible for see and avoid. The Cirrus was a 2006 Signature Edition so it had Skywatch. That makes it very likely that there either was no transponder in the 172 (doubtful) or that it wasn’t on. The last time I flew a 172, turning on the transponder was a checklist item. Also, I believe this accident occurred 5 miles out so it wasn’t in the pattern. They had just been turned over from ATC. That also makes it likely that there was no transponder signal from the 172. Even if you don’t have Skywatch, the other plane having its transponder on will enable ATC to give you that nice update about planes in the area before they turn you over to CTAF. The area did have radar coverage and there is a radar site marked on the sectional. Other questions to answer are whether each plane was even on the correct frequency. The other day my wife heard a person making position calls for one airport on the frequency of another airport. Did the 172 or the Cirrus even make any calls? We don’t know. Most likely neither pilot did anything horribly wrong. Rather small mistakes on the part of both pilots combined to give a fatal outcome.

  20. John Townsley Says:

    See and Avoid is not easy, and I know I am sometimes guilty of less than stellar performance because (most times) the sky is empty. Because of that I fly (always, regardless of proximity to airports) with my HID lights on and every strobe I have flashing unless at night in snow. I appreciate the comments of pilots who suggest a regulatory or techno fix to the problem of midairs. I disagree that transponders and radios should be mandated. Like it or no, many aircraft still lack electrical systems. In addition, far fewer lives are lost to the spectacular midairs than are lost in single plane accidents where pilots/passengers succumb before rescuers arrive… if they ever do. Many more lives would be saved in just a few months by requiring 406 ELTs than are lost in many years of midairs. If we’re going to legislate/regulate safety, let’s at least require investment where the payoff is substantive. It’s well known that just filing a flight plan (and then flying the plan) will significantly improve the odds of surviving a crash in the wild. A relatively cheap fix to that problem is manditory flight plans. Again, let’s use the regulatory hammer wisely and well. Requiring radios, TCAS, transponders, and other gadgets is an expensive solution that would consume resources that might have a much larger payoff (in terms of lives saved) if invested elsewhere.

  21. Bill Lanman Says:

    We should be mindful of the old Italian proverb, “After the ship has sunk, everyone knows how she might have been saved,” and avoid the temptation to explain an event before all facts are known. The only lesson to be learned from this unfortunate event at the present is to increase our vigilance. Anything else, at this time, is pure conjecture.

  22. Mike Busch Says:

    The owner/pilot of the SR-22, Ralph Otto MD, was a client of my maintenance management company. We were scheduled to manage his annual inspection next month. That inspection was not to be. This one hits close to home.

    I have utter contempt for those Monday-morning quarterbacks who criticize the pilot or the aircraft, or suggest that the FAA should mandate some expensive technology to prevent such tragedies.

    Mid-air collisions, while tragic and horrifying, are statistically insignificant as a risk factor in GA.

    I have been flying for more than 7,000 hours and 44 years. I am a CFIA/I/ME and an A&P/IA. Non-towered airports still scare the hell out of me.

  23. John Hey Says:

    Two well trained, high time, well equiped pilots facing the sun and against a student pilot, high wing versus low wing, hot day. BTW, physicians have an exellent safety record–last time I looked it was about where airline pilots are. Lights on, looking, standard pattern, CTAF calls are obvious. Still it can happen to anyone. Heads up and prayed up, everyone.

  24. John Gordon Says:

    Sorry Mr. Busch — I hate to incurr your “contempt” — but, to not require transponders and radios in the new millenium is just plain silly…having a working transponder in the 172 (conjecture as we don’t know for sure that it didn’t, but if it did, it makes this tradgedy even more difficult to explain) would have probably saved three peoples lives! If that makes you mad, then so be it.

  25. kevin Hillman Says:

    There have been 2 midairs is this part of Ohio in the last 2 years. The one at blue ash has airports and airplanes everywhere. Usually I fly with another pilot and we are always scanning the sky but stay out of this area. Believe it or not it is pretty tough for anyone to see a plane approaching each other at say 100mph. 200 plus closure rate. My buddy and I have had some close calls and avoided some close calls. Last year I started IFR training. That is really Safe!! I have the foggles on and the instructor is continually monitoring the instruments and my expert piloting skills. I did have my 6 year old daughter in the back and asked her to let me know if she sees any planes.
    Every single aircraft should be required to have PCAS or TCAS. I finally bought one at OSH this year. I’ll still continue to scan like a Hawk, but after using my PCAS on the way back from OSH, I know I am much safer. I was amazed at how many a/c this thing found that I never saw. Oh well, I guess there were less than a dozen a year, so no big deal, until one happens in your backyard!!

  26. Jeff Kloster Says:

    Having transported a 172 through Rock Springs it is an area that funnels the smaller airplanes into the area through the surrounding peaks and ridgelines.

    I agree that into and around the airport it ought to be standard ops to turn on all of the lights you have. See and Avoid is tough if you can’t See or be Seen.

    Keep the windscreens and sunglasses clean and the CTAF fired up early.

  27. Kevin Says:

    Its just another reason to never relaxe when it comes to looking for traffic. It is very easy to become complacent with more flight hours. I try to make it a point to scan for other traffic during all phases of flight, not just around the airport enviroment.

  28. Dirck Donson Says:

    You can’t stop accidents and as they say, ya can’t fix stupid…

    I’ve had three or four close calls in my days while piloting and learned a few things. Each incident dealt with someone’s head in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it wasn’t always a student.

    No acceptable amount of regulation, expense or equipment will stop accidents like this. You need to use what you’ve got to the fullest. Light bulbs are cheap, run all the lights you’ve got. And if you’ve got com radios use them to the fullest.

    Our closest encounters with VFR traffic usually happen one of two places, small airports and Airway Intersections. When you get close to a heavily traveled intersection, pilots have maps out, they’re retuning radios and getting ready for turns,…their head are inside at the absolute wrong time.

    We successfully use CTAF and Unicom around airports to see and avoid VFR traffic. Do you know that there’s a similar procedure acceptable for airways and intersections?

    I attempt to always have the second radio set to 121.5, ON GUARD. When I get close to a heavily traveled intersection, VOR, tourist land mark or spot traffic getting close I make a short position transmission, i.e. “Mooney 3 miles east of Mike Golf Mic at 6500 ft…on guard.”

    Rarely do I get a verbal response but 20 years ago I would regularly see a lot of lights and strobes come on in recognition.

    You’ll rarely say or hear anything while on guard. But listen up when you do.

    Add another piece of electronic equipment to your airplane and I’ll bet when the thing calls out traffic, you’ll look to it for an avoidance solution or later you’ll lust for a new box that gives you one. Every time you add a box, you add a distraction.

    Hey…if you already have strobes, recognition lights and two radios, it’s free!

  29. Chris Schutz Says:

    It is almost inconceivable that in the huge, open, uncluttered, clear air sky we have over Rock Spring, two itty-bitty little planes can find each other. Preliminary investigation indicates that this was not a glancing blow, rather a direct hit.

    I am a student pilot. All of my 49 hours of flight time have been in the 172XP that was involved in this accident. This aircraft had a Mode C transponder. It also had two navcom radios, one with glideslope, both of which worked. Unless the plane left the area, radio #1 always stayed on the CTAF frequency, #2 stayed on the ASOS frequency. A few days before the accident, I flew the aircraft with no electrical problems. According to the release from the local Sheriff, the transponders on both aircraft were working. Because of our instructor’s insistence on proper radio use, I am convinced that the pilot of the 172 had the radio turned on, though I have no proof to that statement. For those who care, and can put aside your vitriol, that pilot’s name was Dave. I did not know the men in the Cirrus.

    Dave was flying in an area that has been the local practice area for as long as anyone can remember. Because he was in this area, I imagine he was practicing the maneuvers required for the practical test. This, of course, is just speculation on my part. Ground reference maneuvers would be practiced below pattern altitude, so I wouldn’t think he was doing that. More plausibly, he was practicing stalls, slow flight or steep turns, three maneuvers where forward visibility is severely compromised. Performing any of these maneuvers, the 172 would not exhibit “normal” aircraft behavior. The Cirrus was descending from cruise altitude and it is quite conceivable that the 172 just blended into the rocky buttes and dry prairie background. Regulations require an aircraft to broadcast its arrival into the vicinity of the airport over CTAF. Did the Cirrus do that? I don’t know. If it did, did the 172 answer with its location and altitude? I don’t know that either.

    Working in heavy industry for many years, I have seen a number of spectacular failures that should never have happened. This accident should never have happened. It seems that sometimes stuff just happens. The chances of being involved in this sort of accident are infinitesimally small. You have a much better chance of winning the lottery or getting hit by lightning. One thing is for sure, adding another level of government intervention or more regulations to an already heavily regulated industry will not make things any safer. It will just make it harder and far less pleasant for any of us to participate in our chosen activity.

    It is almost inconceivable that in the huge, open, uncluttered, clear air sky we have over Rock Spring, two itty-bitty little planes can find each other. Preliminary investigation indicates that this was not a glancing blow, rather a direct hit.

    I am a student pilot. All of my 49 hours of flight time have been in the 172XP that was involved in this accident. This aircraft had a Mode C transponder. It also had two navcom radios, one with glideslope, both of which worked. Unless the plane left the area, radio #1 always stayed on the CTAF frequency, #2 stayed on the ASOS frequency. A few days before the accident, I flew the aircraft with no electrical problems. According to the release from the local Sheriff, the transponders on both aircraft were working. Because of our instructor’s insistence on proper radio use, I am convinced that the pilot of the 172 had the radio turned on, though I have no proof to that statement. For those who care, and can put aside your vitriol, that pilot’s name was Dave. I did not know the men in the Cirrus.

    Dave was flying in an area that has been the local practice area for as long as anyone can remember. Because he was in this area, I imagine he was practicing the maneuvers required for the practical test. This, of course, is just speculation on my part. Ground reference maneuvers would be practiced below pattern altitude, so I wouldn’t think he was doing that. More plausibly, he was practicing stalls, slow flight or steep turns, three maneuvers where forward visibility is severely compromised. Performing any of these maneuvers, the 172 would not exhibit “normal” aircraft behavior. The Cirrus was descending from cruise altitude and it is quite conceivable that the 172 just blended into the rocky buttes and dry prairie background. Regulations require an aircraft to broadcast its arrival into the vicinity of the airport over CTAF. Did the Cirrus do that? I don’t know. If it did, did the 172 answer with its location and altitude? I don’t know that either.

    Working in heavy industry for many years, I have seen a number of spectacular failures that should never have happened. This accident should never have happened. It seems that sometimes stuff just happens. The chances of being involved in this sort of accident are infinitesimally small. You have a much better chance of winning the lottery or getting hit by lightning. One thing is for sure, adding another level of government intervention or more regulations to an already heavily regulated industry will not make things any safer. It will just make it harder and far less pleasant for any of us to participate in our chosen activity.

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