Ponch and John Bring You…Collision Avoidance

Just to prove that I’m working for you…the Ask a CFI website (which, like so many other online resources, is mostly for plank drivers) had a collision avoidance video called Missing You in Southern California. You can watch it here if you have 20 minutes to waste and your cinematic tastes tend toward CHiPs and porn, but I thought I’d spare you. The video actually contains some decent advice, but you have to suffer cheesy dialogue and a weak plot line to get those few points across. (When March and Norton AFB were both in operation, there was probably some really relevant info about the airspace, but I think the film is too dated to be much use there either). I won’t bore you with the few things about collision avoidance that have been drilled into your head, but not smacking into somebody else while flying goes beyond scanning in 10-degree segments.

Your eyes respond best to movement. This makes sense given our hunter-gather history: we’re either hunting moving things or moving things are hunting us. For pilots, the kick in the ass is that aircraft on a collision course have no relative movement. This is why you should lovingly clean your windscreen. That speck could be a splatted insect, or it could be another aircraft coming at you at 110 KIAS. It’s only in the seconds before a collision that the speck will become recognizable as an aircraft. The FAA HAD a visual aid for spotting aircraft that makes this real: at a mile (about 10 seconds from impact if you’re moving at 85 KIAS) even an A320 is about the size of a damselfly’s remains.

Ok, this isn't really the FAA's version of the aircraft spotter.
Ok, this isn't really the FAA's version of the aircraft spotter.

We see only 10-25% of the traffic that is out there. Not true when we’re in the traffic pattern–since we know about where to look–but get outside of the airport environment where traffic can be coming from any direction and that number is plausible. I’ve seen another school helicopter blow right by us while they were on with ATC without ever seeing us. Close enough to read the tail number, and ATC was telling them where to look. The take-home from this is to use all your resources for traffic avoidance. This starts during your pre-flight planning. As a student, get your sectional out and study the local area so you can start to know what airports are nearby (ie, where traffic is going to be coming from and going to), what ATC facilities are available to you, and what airspaces you might be traversing. Do this on your own initiative after you’ve learned to hover, because it won’t be too much longer until you are out of the traffic pattern regularly. Once you’re in the air, contact nearby ATC facilities, even if you aren’t required to by the regulations. For some reason, many pilots don’t like using the radio or being on with ATC, but they’re a great resource that you should take advantage of. I have heard ATC come on the CTAF to call out safety alerts–“Aircraft 8 miles east of Boise turn heading 330 immediately!” But don’t count on it, because…

The “workload permitting” caveat for traffic alerts comes into play in busy airspace. I learned to fly helicopters at an uncontrolled airport in what could be generously described as a suburban area. It could get busy, but more often than not, controllers at the nearest tower were only handling a few aircraft at a time (during most night flights, the same controller would be running the approach, tower and ground frequencies). In contrast, I flew fixed wing out of KBED in the Boston area, which has Logan’s Bravo airspace and a TRSA to help manage traffic. In that environment, there’s a reasonable chance that the controller isn’t going to be able to call traffic for you.

Mid-air collisions happen when maneuvering. In the “Missing You” video, they said that most MACs happen during climbs and descents, or when overtaking other aircraft. The Hudson River and Phoenix news helicopter MACs illustrate that. The first thing I’ll say about this is that I’m damn good about clearing the area when practicing maneuvers–above, below, right, left, and behind. On a cross-country flight though, I’m not sure that I’ve ever looked to see if there wasn’t a Super Cub gaining on me. Just because you’re not maneuvering doesn’t mean somebody else isn’t maneuvering to run into you. Second thing, how many of you have flown an airplane? The visibility is awful. The Katana (a common training plane) has great visibility above and out to the sides, but you have the panel blocking your view down and in front. A Cessna is worse…between the panel, struts, and high wing, it’s like you’re looking through a slit in knight’s helmet. Might as well be flying IFR.

When you talk, your eye automatically brings its focus close-in. And what are we doing when we’re on an instructional flight? Constant conversation. This is something I didn’t know, even though it’s no different than empty-field myopia (which was pounded into my brain during my training). One thing I’d like to do once I start instructing is have a sterile cockpit policy within 5 miles of an airport, during take-off and approach, and while taxiing. This is hard–your instructor becomes your friend, and when he’s not criticizing your performance, idle banter comes pretty naturally. And from a marketing standpoint, it’s easier to sell yourself to a prospective student if you befriend them. I don’t know how to resolve this, but it’s a goal to shoot for.