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Collision Avoidance Techniques

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
Getting the Most From Your Flight Training, January 2004

Recently, a local C152 pilot collided with a twin Comanche.  They met metal to metal on final approach for runway 34.  For one of the two pilots, that approach was their last.  If that doesn't tell you that collision avoidance techniques are important, perhaps these facts will:

  • all pilot applications must show collision avoidance skills on checkrides,
  • increased traffic in busy, complex airspace increases the risk,
  • Florida has more VFR days than most other places, which increases traffic, thus risk,
  • Mid-air collisions usually involve fatalities - there are no minor fender-benders in the air!
According to NTSB statistics, its easy to determine when and where mid-air collisions are likely to happen. 
  • VFR, daylight, weekend
  • Most <3,000 feet AGL at uncontrolled airport within 10nm
  • The rest <8,000AGL within 25nm
  • Great weather
  • All pilot skill levels
  • Pleasure flight, no flight plan
  • Within 10 miles of non-tower airports
  • Transition to/from the traffic pattern
  • Primarily in the traffic pattern
What can you do to prevent or minimize the threat?  First, know where the traffic is.  You'll find most traffic at airports, airways, and MTRs.  Second, know where the potential conflict is greatest.  More than 80% occur on final, with 18% occur on base, and less than 2% on downwind.

Constantly checking for traffic should be a habit - a way of life.  FAR 91.113(b) “See and Avoid” . . . Vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.  This also includes IFR flights when in VMC.

Strategies for Reducing the Risk

1.  Situational Awareness
  • Situational awareness is a skill necessary to both ground and in-flight operations.
  • Knowing where you are & where other traffic is operating 
  • Knowing where you will be and where other traffic will be 
  • Listening and looking: the Good Senses. 
  • All available information (FAR 91.103) 
  • “Head’s Down” decreases situational awareness – minimize as much as possible. 
  • Common Problems: When are you doing checklists? Do you have taxi diagrams when you land? Are your radios preset when you are “in-range”? Do you ensure you have weather before you land?
2.  Visual Scanning
  • When in VMC, it’s pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid FAR91.113(b)
  • Scan should be broken down into about 10 degree increments, spending about 1 second on each segment
  • During VMC: 75-80% of time looking outside, 20-25% spent scanning instruments
  • When moving eyes from inside to outside, or vice versa, give eyes time to adjust
  • Age, Dust, Haze, Rain, Glare, and a dirty windscreen all impede ability to scan
  • Empty field myopia: inability of eye to focus; occurs when there is a lack of visual reference
  • Blind spots: wings, struts, etc.
  • If Aircraft doesn’t appear to move, you may be on collision course with it
  • If Aircraft is above horizon, it’s above you
  • If Aircraft is below horizon, it’s below you
  • If Aircraft is level with horizon, it’s at your altitude
3.  Aircraft Lighting
  • Operation Lights On: landing light on in flight; private pilot test says required within 10nm of airport – the landing light is one of the most important lights on your aircraft and cheap insurance. FAA Bird Strike Study.
  • Use of anti-collision lighting required at night, use it always except in clouds
  • Beacon on anytime engine is running 
  • Use of position lights at night, FAR91.209
  • Most airline operations manuals all exterior lighting on when operating below FL180
  • GOAL: Be as visible as possible. The old gray United Airlines paint scheme is an exercise in airborne visual frustration.
4.  Use Radar Services, TCAS/Skywatch, Mode S/TIS

5.  VFR Cruising Altitude Rules FAR 91.159

Other Important Reminders

1.  FAR 91.126(b) – Operating near Airports in Class G Airspace  -  When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower . . . each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left [unless otherwise designated].

2.  FAR91.127(a) – Operating near Airports in Class E Airspace  -  When operating in the vicinity of an airport in Class E airspace, comply with FAR 91.126

3.  FAR 91.119 Minimum Safe Altitudes

  • Anywhere- An altitude which will allow a safe emergency landing without hazard to people or property on the surface.
  • Congested Area - 1000’ above the highest obstacle within 2000’ or the aircraft.
  • Other than congested areas - 500’
  • Over water & sparsely populated areas: no closer than 500’ to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure. 
4.  Right-of-Way Rules FAR 91.113
  • Aircraft in distress (FAR 91.113c)
  • Aircraft refueling
  • Aircraft of different categories converging: BGAAR (FAR 91.113d)
  • Aircraft of same categories converging: 
    • 91.113e head on: pilot deviate to the right
    • 91.113f overtaking: pass on the right and well clear
    • 91.113g landing: lower altitude right of way, but not to overtake
    • 90º angle: aircraft on the left, deviate to go behind the passing traffic

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