Close Calls Might Be More Frequent Than You Think

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The recent double-fatal collision between a cargo-carrying Cessna Caravan and a powered parachute in Class Echo airspace has generated a lot of interest in the dangers posed by such unconventional aircraft when flying at altitudes where pilots of more conventional aircraft might not expect to see them. The controversy pulls between the freedom to fly in such less-restricted airspace versus the danger implicit in low-profile, slow-moving aircraft at cruising altitudes without a requirement for transponders, ADS-B or even flashing beacons. The attached videos tell two stories with happy endings, but might still cause some cold-sweat reactions among pilots of light aircraft—or at least a resolve to be alert for just about anything, anywhere.

The first TikTok video depicts the pilot of a single-seat powered parachute cavorting happily among scattered-to-broken cloud tops at around 5,000 feet. Most licensed VFR pilots of conventional aircraft would be uncomfortable being that close to clouds, and likely make every effort to escape a scenario where another unseen aircraft on an instrument flight plan could pop up from the cloud deck without warning. Watch it here.

The second video from Sweden, recorded in 2013, shows an actual spine-chilling close call for the pilot of a winch-launched paraglider. As he dangles beneath his canopy still tethered to his tow line, a fixed-wing aircraft, later identified as a Saab MFI 15, passes below him and misses hitting the towline by an estimated 1 to 3 meters. Watch it here.

The Swedish Accident Investigation Authority reported: “An aircraft of the model SAAB MFI 15 took off from Sundbro, Uppsala, for a VFR flight to Johannisberg, Västerås. Shortly thereafter began winching of a paraglider from Härkeberga, located along the aircraft’s route. At the final stage of the winching, at about 350 meters altitude, the paraglider pilot saw an airplane coming straight at him at a slightly lower altitude. The aircraft passed below the paraglider a few seconds later without colliding. The height difference was estimated by the paraglider pilot to about 50 feet and the distance to the line was 1 to 3 meters. The pilot of the aircraft never perceived the event.

“The map data that the pilot used—and which is the most widely used in general aviation—had no special marking of the paragliding activities at Härkeberga. Neither the paraglider nor the aircraft flew at altitudes implying contact with controlled airspace …”

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. “The controversy pulls between the freedom to fly in uncontrolled airspace…”

    Class E airspace (where the accident occurred) is by definition controlled airspace. Which is one of the reasons why this accident has generated so much interest and controversy, as you say.

    • You mark my words … now that ADS-B “out” is required equipment in “Rule” airspace, near misses like those described here along with air traffic staff reductions and the proliferation of drones will ultimately result in expansion of the requirement to all airspace. AND … I’m betting that “in” equipment will become a requirement when someone figures out that 5G technology could be incorporated into the ‘up’ link to provide automated in-cockpit displays and commands in near real time.

  2. I’m assuming the “uncontrolled airspace” mention was intended to mean airspace in which the pilot has the freedom to fly without ATC restrictions or clearance. As Ethan mentioned, by definition class E is controlled. Class G is uncontrolled. And controlled or uncontrolled actually addresses the airspace in which ATC may or may not issue a clearance. I has nothing to do with implied restrictions on the pilot. Uncontrolled, ATC may not issue a clearance even if you want one. Controlled, ATC may issue a clearance if you request one. And Positive controlled, B and A, ATC must issue a clearance and you must have one to operate in that airspace.

  3. I’m certain that close calls happen more than most pilots think. I still remember the long X/C flight I did with my instructor for the commercial rating where we chose not to use flight following for whatever reason and at some point saw an aircraft pass below and to our right. I estimate it missed us by about 100 feet diagonally. It was obvious the other pilot never saw us, and I never saw them until it was too late to maneuver anyway.

    “See and avoid” is actually a lousy avoidance method, and it’s been known for some time (at least since the Grand Canyon collision in 1956).

    • Gary, I think see-and-avoid is pushed pretty hard in basic training, and this VFR pilot is constantly reminded of this responsibility in other scenarios as well. But, I tend to have a hard time seeing and avoiding while I’m on a flight, using flight following, and ATC calls traffic to my attention. If the contact is below the horizon, many times I can’t find it because it’s lost in the visual ground clutter. Even in the pattern at my home airport, the tower will call traffic and I have to respond “no contact” because I just can’t locate the traffic. So, I agree with you from personal experience that see-and-avoid is not effective. I just find it surprising to read your comment, when it is the prime VFR avoidance component starting with primary training.

  4. How about transponders that are small, rechargeable, battery powered, ADS-B Out? They could just be one code, say 1201 so pilots of conventional aircraft would have a shot at missing them. That way they wouldn’t weigh down the very light aircraft and drones, but give conventional aircraft a shot at seeing and missing them, and knowing what they are looking for.

    • uAvionix sells the SkyEcho (https://uavionix.com/products/skyecho/) which is EXACTLY what you are looking for: a low cost battery powered ADS-B IN and OUT transceiver. It costs ~$600.

      Unfortunately, in its infinite wisdom, the FAA doesn’t permit it’s use in the US, because it doesn’t meet the FAA’s gold plated standards for power output and a certified GPS navigation source.

      I am a member of a soaring club just south of the MSP Class B airspace. The majority of the gliders in our club are neither transponder or ADS-B equipped. We regularly fly up to cloud base, which in the spring can easily be 8,000+ feet, totally invisible to ATC and the jets flying in and out of MSP. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

      • I had a Sky Echo in my non electric Aeronca Chief until I sold it. I operated the Out portion in a “testing” mode occasionally (when ever I was flying I tested it). I checked with our local FSDO to research their take on operating it. They said that as far as they were concerned researching it, three inspectors’ unofficial opinion, was fine with the FAA. In fact, they had no information on it at all on way or another. However, I followed up with Uavionix, telling them unofficially the FAA doesn’t care if I used it. They said it was not the FAA at all stopping, but the FCC. The FCC would not license it to use whatever frequency it needed therefore making it illegal in the US. But, I loved the thing. It had limited range but nearby other aircraft could see me on their IN. Reference sailplanes, way back when I was a controller in the L.A. area at ZLA, several times I had jets climbing out of 15K or so report passing a sailplane or two that were mountain wave soaring over the mountains NE of LAX.

        • Additionally, while “testing ” it, I checked with both our local approach control and the Center. They both could see my Sky Echo return. But it was a different type return than the normal approved OUTs that still work in conjunction with a transponder. It was electronic, but no data information. At least they saw my otherwise very weak Aeronca primary return much better. In fact, while monitoring the approach frequency one day, I heard them issue my target to a Falcon jet inbound. I had already looked over and saw the Falcon. This OUT was picked up by the ADS-B towers and later I could pull up my flight on Flight Aware. That track gave all the info, including my call sign and altitude correctly.

    • That area of the Caravan/motorchute accident is well known by pilots here. Parachutes, gliders, small experimental, just name it, all are there and it’s very active. I propose if pilots actually looked outside and tuned into local airports (instead of heads down on an iPad) then they would have a much better chance of avoiding everything else that is flying or dropping through the airspace. Yes, birds too.

      • The Caravan pilot was on an IFR Flightplan. Controllers are required to maintain aircraft separation of IFR flights. Only VFR pilots are required to see and avoid. That area is inside of the ADS-B requirement area so ultralights and aircraft without electrical systems are the only types of aircraft that can be there without a transponder. An inexpensive very basic ADS-B transponder should be developed and required for ultralights and airplanes without electrical systems inside of ADS-B areas in my opinion.

        • “Controllers are required to maintain aircraft separation of IFR flights. Only VFR pilots are required to see and avoid.”

          Not so. ATC maintains separation of IFR traffic only from other IFR traffic. If conditions are VFR, IFR traffic in Class E airspace is still responsible to look out for other VFR traffic. That’s why, when you’re flying practice approaches in good weather, ATC always tells you “Maintain VFR.”

          • Absolutely true. You would be amazed at how many low time jet FO’s I have had who think an IFR clearance even in VMC gives them clearance over any traffic without looking outside the window for traffic. If VMC you do still have to see and avoid even if on an IFR clearance.

        • Wrong. Pick up your FAR/AIM and inform yourself before your complacent attitude makes you a hazard to others.

          “When weather conditions permit, during the time an IFR flight is operating, it is the direct responsibility of the pilot to avoid other aircraft since VFR flights may be operating in the same area without the knowledge of ATC. Traffic clearances provide standard separation only between IFR flights.”

  5. I thought ultralights are limited to Class G airspace?

    Maybe not as parachutes obviously operate in class E and occasionally Class A. Are they considered ultralight?

    Does it matter if the operator is a licensed pilot?

    How is all this supposed to work, and are their ceiling and visibility and cloud clearance requirements the same as ours?

  6. So could I move the Sky Echo from one plane to another with all three of them being acro mounts? Pitts, Laser and RV4 for which this would be a doable solution. Does the unit only work for one registered airplane or is the info without ID being displayed.

    I could not find that info on their website.

  7. @Michael Schumann “I am a member of a soaring club just south of the MSP Class B airspace. … We regularly fly up to cloud base, which in the spring can easily be 8,000+ feet, totally invisible to ATC and the jets flying in and out of MSP. This is a disaster waiting to happen.”

    If it’s Class E Airspace (FBL?), then the cloud clearance requirements are:

    500 feet below.
    1,000 feet above.
    2,000 feet horizontal

    NOT “up to the bases.”

    Unless 2000′ horizontal, then, Yes, a disaster waiting to happen.
    ==================
    As an aside: Even abiding by these numbers, these distances are not enough for today’s fleet. I used to help students remember the first two cloud clearance numbers by telling them that the standard Rate of Descent for IFR (in the DC-3 days) was 500 fpm. So that would give an IFR aircraft breaking out of the clouds a minute to see you if you were 500′ below. And a good Rate of Climb (for a DC-3) was 1000 fpm. So, again, an IFR aircraft would have a minute to see you. Nowadays with jets climbing at 3000+ fpm and “good rates of descent” greater than 500 fpm, along with 250 kt speed limits, these distances from clouds are obsolete.