A Collision Of Perceptions

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Midair Over Denver Leads To Safety Concerns...

Five people died last Friday when a Cessna 172 and a twin-engine Piper PA-31T Cheyenne collided above a Denver neighborhood. Six people on the ground were slightly hurt, and a house was destroyed after it was hit by the Cessna and caught fire. Over the weekend, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb asked the FAA to review the local flight patterns to be sure they are safe. AOPA representatives worked to explain to the media that the chance of a person on the ground being killed by a falling airplane is about 1 in 50 million ... favorable, when compared to the odds of being struck by lightning or falling fatally down the stairs. "The mayor has been assured that the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are going to be reviewing air traffic patterns over the city," a spokesman for the mayor said Sunday, The Denver Post reported. AOPA is worried that the reaction could encourage public anxieties that ultimately might manifest in regulation infringing on pilots' freedom to fly.

...As Pilots Defend Airspace...

Local pilots also defended aviation safety to The Denver Post. A spokeswoman for the Colorado Pilots Association told the Post that midair collisions are very rare, and stricter regulations would not have prevented Friday's accident. Also, keeping the skies wide open for pilots (both accident aircraft were operating under VFR) actually keeps them safer, said Eric Jensen, president of the pilots' group, because giving them more space lessens the concentration of aircraft. "If you sit around the pilots' lounge talking about what worries people, midairs are not No. 1," Jensen told the Post. An editorial in Tuesday's Post, entitled "A tragedy, not a trend," quoted reassurances from AOPA spokesman Warren Morningstar, and concluded, "What's important now is getting all the facts and calming the public's fears: The sky is not falling." AOPA also explained to the media the procedures pilots follow to avoid midair collisions, including scanning for traffic, communicating on CTAF frequencies in the vicinity of a non-towered airport, utilizing "flight following" services, and the hemispheric cruising rules.

...And Details Of The Accident Emerge

Both pilots involved in the collision were talking to air traffic controllers, according to an NTSB update released Monday. Both pilots were flying VFR and had requested flight following. One controller was providing basic radar services to both pilots. Shortly before the crash, the Piper pilot, Leo "Lee" Larson, 57, had been issued a traffic advisory that the Cessna was at 12 o'clock and 1 mile. The reported visibility at the time was about 10-15 miles and the clouds were broken and scattered from 6,000 to 14,000 feet MSL. The Cessna 172, flown by Jonathan Ladd, 20, and carrying two passengers, had departed from Centennial Airport about 5 p.m. local time, headed to Cheyenne, Wyo. About 5:10 p.m., the Piper Cheyenne, with Larson and one passenger on board, departed Jefferson County Airport for Centennial Airport. At 5:17 p.m., Larson reported to the Denver Approach controller and said his altitude was 7,800 feet. About 90 seconds later, Ladd, in the Cessna, contacted the controller. He was at 7,300 feet and asked to climb to 8,500 feet. The request was granted. About 10 seconds later, the controller asked Larson his altitude, and was told 7,600 feet. The controller then issued a traffic advisory to Larson, advising there was a Cessna at the Piper's 12 o'clock position and 1 mile at 7,700 feet. The collision occurred shortly thereafter. The sun had set about 20 minutes prior to the collision.