Mid-Air Fear: Do We Overstate It?


What really scares you in an airplane? No, I’m not talking about turning the logbooks over to your IA for an annual on an aging Bonanza, but getting whacked in an accident. Is it a stall/spin? An engine failure on takeoff? Icing? Or do you even think about it? I don’t obsess about it, but try to follow Scout Leader Mr. Coakley’s advice to always be prepared. I know what doesn’t top my hit parade: a mid-air collision in the traffic pattern or anywhere else for that matter.

I know this because I am repeatedly reminded by YouTube commenters that I’m not looking out the window enough when recording flight reports people insist they want us to do. I get the point but I also scan for traffic a lot more carefully than the videos might imply, especially in the pattern. Since I fly an airplane sans ADS-B, I don’t have benefit of supplemental electronic eyes unless I’m carrying a portable, which isn’t often. I do wonder if ADS-B encourages complacency among those who do have it, encouraging the thought if there’s no ADS-B target, there can’t be any traffic. If this is so, the accident history doesn’t confirm it. Mid-airs appear to be trending down, not up. ADS-B may be proving a positive influence.

I’ve never surveyed pilots precisely on this question. In April, in this poll, we asked if see-and-avoid is enough, but not whether it works. These are two different questions. If I asked, I suspect I might be in the minority of pilots in saying that yes, see and avoid works if you bother to look, it’s just not perfect. (Neither is ADS-B for that matter.) It’s adequate for me to accept the risk of flying without ADS-B, although I’m hearing more pilots say they won’t do so, now that they’ve sampled the traffic awareness benefits of this system.

Irrespective of ADS-B, I think the fear of mid-airs in the pattern has been extant forever. What got me thinking about it was a recording session I did for Pilot Workshops, which I occasionally contribute to. One of the discussions involved flying New York’s Hudson River Class B exclusion zone, the other a distress situation for an airplane potentially landing at a busy non-towered airport. I heard a lot of concern—fear is too strong—about barging into the congested pattern needing priority. There was a general consensus to take the problem elsewhere to a less busy airport.

As far as the Hudson, my friend retired FAAer Bob Martens, who I used to do Wings safety presentations for, thought it was bordering on insanity to fly the corridor. But I did it often and sometimes with customers on Discovery Flights. They loved it. I always felt the risk was tolerable because the traffic was never really heavy. In those days, most of it was helicopter traffic from the then 34th-Street Heliport over to Newark or Teterboro. If you looked, you would see it.

Yes, there were a few mid-airs. A bad one in 2009 between a Lance and a helicopter eventually led to what’s now called the Skyline Route, which is an actual Class B clearance along the Hudson just above the ceiling of the exclusion corridor. No question it’s a safer alternative because in Class B airspace, you get actual separation and there shouldn’t be any freelance VFRs near you.

But back to a busy pattern. There’s risk there, too, but I’ve never shooed myself away from one because it was too zoo-like or because students were making a hash of it. Students often make a hash of it, but just because it’s not as orderly as we might like doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. Timely calls on the CTAF, a little courtesy and intelligent use of spacing will readily sort things out, unless someone—or several someones—is being a real jerk about it.

My thinking on this has evolved, however. I could once defend a pilot’s right to fly into a busy pattern without a radio, but I no longer can. I did it by necessity as recently as five years ago, but now, if the radio isn’t working, I’ll cancel the flight unless the airport is dead. Mine rarely is. While it’s not, in my view, an egregious safety shortfall, pilots today aren’t comfortable with NORDO airplanes and when confronted by one—as I actually was—I don’t feel like explaining how lack of regulation in this area makes it legal to fly sans radio. I’d rather soothe the agita by just making sure the radio works. It’s just safer. Period.

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  1. “I do wonder if ADS-B encourages complacency among those who do have it, encouraging the thought if there’s no ADS-B target, there can’t be any traffic. If this is so, the accident history doesn’t confirm it. Mid-airs appear to be trending down, not up. ADS-B may be proving a positive influence.”

    Paul, you study accident history and I don’t so I believe your assertion that accident history doesn’t confirm ADS-B encouraged complacency. The other side of that coin is that mid-air accident history in the GA ADS-B era is very short. GA has been using ADS-B for how many decades now?

    Several days prior reading this blog I read coverage in the local Wichita civilian press about the fixed wing/helicopter mid-air in Chandler, AZ last Friday (not covered by AVweb) and wondered what caused that mid-air collision. I’m not postulating as to why, but I wondered and still do.

    On August 29 you wrote a story titled “AeroLEDS New Combined Landing And Taxi Lights” to which one of your regular commenters responded:

    “I’d rather just replace with a std bulb. Basically with ADS-B you really don’t need all the fancy anti-collision lights anymore to find traffic (day or night).”

    Mid-air collisions may not top your hit parade, but 52 years and 10s of thousand of hours into the profession, they still top my hit parade if for no other reason than the attitude expressed by a regular AVweb commenter on your LED taxi/landing light story.

    You’re braver than I am.

    • Correction: my total time is not in the 10s of thousands of hours. It’s in the teens, shy of two 10s of thousands, many fewer than others with as much calendar time in the profession.

  2. Fly anywhere near ‘Bumble Bee AFB’ (KDAB) or the nearby airports infected with hoards of ‘Echo Romeos’ (and other puppy mill company airplanes) and you might change your mind. My local airport is one of their favorites because it has a great airport restaurant. After the third NMAC which caused my wife to refuse to fly with me, I removed my airplane to my second location up north in WI. Ask her if she thinks it’s overstated. Earlier this year, I did a flight review back down home in FL and was taken aback by the increase in traffic. They even have a frequency for the practice area now. Up here, worrying about hitting a deer crossing the runway is my big worry now. I’ll take that any day; besides, I get deer steak if I do hit one.

    The new approach path and procedure for heading into Airventure does show that proper management of lots of airplanes all funneling into the same direction can be done safely. It’s when they’re on their own to behave coming from all points of the compass that things get testy. Now toss in the chatty Kathy’s you described several weeks ago and you have a recipe for issues.

    The big sky theory works very well … until it doesn’t. The Metroliner accident in Denver is proof positive.

  3. “I do wonder if ADS-B encourages complacency among those who do have it, encouraging the thought if there’s no ADS-B target, there can’t be any traffic. If this is so, the accident history doesn’t confirm it. Mid-airs appear to be trending down, not up. ADS-B may be proving a positive influence.”

    I do think it has encouraged a further uptick in folks calling and flying right traffic at our left traffic airport. And we often DO have a NORDO Cub in the pattern who has popped over from his private grass farm strip for fuel. The right traffic is annoying enough that I avoid flying Fri afternoons to avoid head to heads on the base legs as the visitors arrive for the weekend.

    And it’s caught the attention of the FAA who have been monitoring our airport and two others in the area to catch the against traffic flyers. (Source the local FAA Safety Team Manager).

    As to what really scares me – engine failure in built up areas with nowhere to put down. I might be that low “legally” as I am in the process of taking off and landing. But I sure like it once I am high enough to have a glide to something better than the backyard of the big house among the little houses.

  4. Flying near really congested airspace,east of the Bay Area,there are so many ADS-B ‘hits’ that it is virtually useless. Unfortunately many people think it is a TCAS,it isn’t. If in a VFR environment,the last place a pilots attention should be is on the display on an IPad. When working in the fire aviation environment,we found out that the most visible thing in the ‘smoke’ was the landing light. Our requirement to have flashing or pulsing the landing light made the aircraft far more visible. Interesting side result,the flashing landing light seemed to greatly reduce bird strikes.

    • I’d suggest that an IPad is not a decent aviation instrument. More like a jack of all trades, perhaps not good enough for some things. I’m also of the opinion that most or all of the ADSB systems are deeply flawed. Why is this? Because the manufacturers attempt to include lots of visual goodies to attract sales. In my opinion, any visual capabilities should be secondary. One’s eyes cannot be on the ADSB display, and outside the cockpit at the same time. Outside the cockpit is where the eyes should be all the time. A computer can track the local traffic much better than the pilot can, and, can verbally announce the important targets without the clutter of all others. Eyes outside, ears inside might be a better idea.

      • I certainly agree that “a computer can track the local traffic” if it’s visible to the computer… Unfortunately, a lot of NORDO aircraft of various sizes fly in the NAS. IMHO, ADSB probably does, as Paul B suggested, bend the curve toward the x axis a bit. But, even aircraft that have electrical systems aren’t equipped with ADSB-OUT. There’s a long list of exemptions and exceptions to that hoary old date where ADSB-OUT became required equipment (sometimes).

        FWIW, my last read of NTSB “defining events” for personal flying (GA) accidents listed “system malfunction – powerplant” as a close second for LOC… right up near the top. For those of us flying piston engine aircraft it behooves us to remember we’re heavy contributors to those “defining event” statistics. Another statistic that should be in the forefront of our minds is that about 10% of the accidents occur during the takeoff and initial climb phases of flight (from throttle forward to cruise climb well above the firmament). And a bunch of ’em are powerplant related. Like Paul, I am aware of the potential for a midair, but I worry about engine failures. For those of us who enjoy a good read, check out Russ Still’s article in the October 2021 issue of Flying Magazine, pages 44 -49. The title is an eye catcher: “TAKEOFF EMERGENCIES – Your 90-second Survival Plan”. For us, and any other pilots, those are the most risk filled moments of ever flight. Low energy, close to the ground, close to a stall, and often with no good choices for where to land if we’re suddenly flying a glider.

  5. Without a question, mid air collisions is at the top of my list. I can manage fuel, weather and my own proficiency and health, but I feel mid airs are somewhat unpredictable and outside of my control. How many times has ATC given you traffic, but you replied “looking”. What does that tell you? It is very very difficult to see traffic even after it has been pointed out to you. Just because you look out the window does not mean we will see every tiny dot coming towards you. If I were to rank the effectiveness of traffic avoidance tools, I would say (1) ADS-B, (2) ATC radar and (3) looking out the window.

    • Flying in Australia some years back I was cautioned that CTAF use was in fact mandatory, but my understanding is the primary purpose was financial – for the airport operators. Unstaffed airports recorded CTAF transmissions, which were later milked for landing/use billings.

  6. Mid airs, engine failures, pilots performing right pattern approaches to standard left pattern airports…risks that now loom large in my view. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s that the outcome of these situations can be so devastating or final. “Oh I think I’ll go up for a spin around the pattern.” Only to return crippled for life or dead. If only the risks were more on the order of “Oh well, I bent the wheel.” or “Damn! This will cost me a lot of money!” I’ve had enough sports injuries to know that blunt force traumas are something I do not ever want.

  7. I can hardly believe that birds have not been brought up. That’s my number 1 fear. They don’t show up on any radar/ADS-B/TCAS and are very hard to see. Even worse, if you try to avoid them by flying below them, they will tuck their wings and dive right into you. There are many more millions of them then there are airplanes, even if you only count the airport environment.

    One of them in your windshield will at least ruin your whole day if not kill you and your passengers. One of them into the wing leading edge will cause expensive sheet metal repair. One of them into the engine on an airliner can cause engine failure and even engine fire as witnesses this weekend with a Spirit Airlines Jet. Not to mention “The Miracle on the Hudson”.

    • I have heard (but don’t know if it’s true, though it generally seems to have been true in my experience) that the best way to avoid a bird strike to maintain your heading and optionally climb if necessary. As you pointed out, if you dive below them they will dive into you, so climbing is the better bet. And supposedly, if you maintain heading they are more likely to actively try to avoid you, whereas if you turn to avoid them it’s harder for them to predict where you’re going and so they’re more likely to turn into you. This assumes you aren’t flying a jet or other fast aircraft.

  8. ADS-B works best when it is installed in all airplanes. Silly statement? Not really – while its nice to see non ADS-B traffic over the ground network it is not as timely as a real ADS-B return. Anybody who has spent even a few hours with a TCAS or ADS-B traffic system knows how inadequate our eyes are to the task of scanning, no matter how diligently we try. Just equip.

  9. My biggest fear while flying is actually structural failure. With everything else, I can actually do something about it (at least in theory – I can’t avoid a mid-air with something I didn’t see, but there are ways to mitigate that), but there’s not much I can do if the aircraft doesn’t have a full-frame parachute. Obviously the risk is not very high, and it doesn’t scare me away from flying, but of the concerns that go through my head while flying, that is the biggest one.

    This isn’t to say mid-airs aren’t a concern for me, though. It is something I think about which is why I bought a portable ADS-B receiver for when I fly aircraft that don’t receive traffic (it’s been a while since the aircraft I fly didn’t have at least ADS-B out). It’s also why I feel safer in aircraft with LED lighting, since it makes me that much more visible.

  10. My current aircraft has G1000 with traffic and we carry a Stratus/IPad for weather which also provides traffic w/callouts. We’re continually surprised at how often we have ‘no joy’ on traffic plainly displayed on our monitors at distances we should be able to see. As a result I’m unlikely to fly without some source for traffic in the cockpit.

  11. I don’t worry much about them, despite having a really close call. I was flying SE at 5500’, just south of GSO class C airspace, VFR with flight following when I was alerted to a plane climbing from my 10 o’clock (rapidly becoming 9. I was looking for him almost head on so he wasn’t a very big target. He would have been approaching me from below and the side and should have had a much larger profile of me than I had of him, but he obviously didn’t see me either. So much for “see and avoid”. I didn’t see him until he flashed in front of me at my altitude I threw it into a steep left turn to pass behind him. We missed each other by maybe a hundred feet. Judging by the shocked expression on the person in the copilot’s seat, they might have had to land to change some underwear.

  12. I answered NMAC because I typically fly in busy airspace under VFR and IFR conditions. I have had two NMAC incidents in almost 2500 hours of PIC time, and both incidents were in VMC but under IFR flight rules. For both, I was in contact with the appropriate ATC and both occurred before ADS-B, although I had a TCAD system. These tools work great – if the other aircraft is squawking a transponder code. In both cases, neither were doing so, and were converging with me at my (correct) IFR altitude.

    I missed the first one by about 200 feet over a VOR and that taught me to offset more (to the right) from VORs. The other was inside the DC ADIZ at 7000 feet and the fool in the other plane missed me by less than 100 feet. He did not have his transponder on until he was coming straight at me with a closing speed of over 200, even though we were well within the DC Mode C veil. ATC and my TCAD told me I had traffic at my 12 o’clock only after he finally turned on his transponder…I did not think, but immediately dove right and down and he zipped on by me. I saw his face, but he was looking straight ahead and probably never saw me. I fly a high wing aircraft and he was in a low-wing and climbing, probably out of Stafford, VA (I think it was some sort of RV, but I did not have time to do a positive ID). Good thing I wasn’t flying a low-wing and he (it was a he) a high-wing. We probably would have wound up as statistics for the NTSB to puzzle over.

    So yes, I am paranoid about NMAC. In busy airspace, such as a traffic pattern, I probably look like a Bobblehead…ADS-B and TCAD or not. Tools are great, but using one’s eyeballs is essential.

  13. People, including scientists and engineers who should know better, are horrible at assessing risk off the cuff. You really need to look at the data. But even then some people have irrational fears – by definition fears not based on the data rather a unique personal experience. If I’m not mistaken about the data, most general aviation incidents involve fuel starvation. But I would include that in a broader category of pilots are just doing stupid things in general aviation to cause mishaps. Some I’m all for continuing training much like the program Juan Brown advocates for on his YT channel. Probably far down on the data-driven list is mid-airs. Probably somewhere in the middle is my fear – loss of the engine on a single-engine airplane right after takeoff or over anywhere where there’s no good place to land. So I just make sure to properly maintain my airplane. I try to have a plan for that based on wherever I’m flying or modify my route, but I don’t fret over it.

  14. I am always reminded of the descriptions of Battle of Britain pilots (and the Battle of Malta), where numerous new pilots tell how astounded they were, after landing, to hear the more experienced ones discuss all the aircraft they saw on the sortie.
    Remember these were young men with 20/20 vision, trained to look for the enemy, but they saw nothing.
    It was only after a while (if they lived that long) that they too saw the tiny dots at funny angles, which were the enemy. And learned how quickly a tiny dot could become an enemy plane when combined speeds were often over 800 mph.
    So even today, with everyone on the radio wanting to get home alive without shooting at anybody, and mobile phones and computers having incredible calculating and position giving ability, it is no surprise that some people never see the other flying objects around them.

  15. The NTSB did a good job in this video. Mid-Air collisions happen to the highest time, lowest time and every pilot in between. For anybody that experienced a near miss you’ll have a totally different view of the dangers of Mid-Airs.

  16. Mid-air collisions top my list of things to worry about in an aircraft. There are lots of blind spots on my Maule taildragger that would keep me from being able to see a conflicting aircraft. Careful see and avoid is essential but not complete immunity to a mid-air. There are well documented accidents like the one between two seaplanes in Ketchikan AK in May 2019 where both pilots were exercising good see and avoid techniques but they didn’t see one another. I’ve used ADS-B TIS-B from on an iPad with Foreflight since 2019 when I replaced my transponder with an Appareo ESG/Stratus 2i. On numerous occasions I’ve picked up traffic on the iPad that I didn’t see even though I was scanning the sky carefully. My Lightspeed Zulu 3 headset is connected to my iPad’s Bluetooth so I hear audible warnings if the TIS-B traffic is close. That has helped me focus my scan on a particular sector of the sky on several occasions. TIS-B has its limitations but it’s a valuable supplemental source of information for better situational awareness as long as it doesn’t cause a pilot to relax visual scanning.

  17. As someone earlier in this thread said, “Risk and fear are often non-intersectional.” As someone who trains and flies formation, intentionally flying in such a way as to try to run into another airplane (a rejoin), is difficult. The sky is big. Airplanes are small. Mid-air collisions are rare, but they do happen, especially where aircraft are funneled together, such as a traffic pattern.

    Our tiny airport can be surprisingly busy with an eclectic mix of aircraft. I have flown the pattern with a powered-parachute, a Tiger Moth, a T6, and a TBM in the pattern concurrently. (I was flying the Tiger Moth.) No problem, we just need to be aware of everyone’s speed differential. And, yeah, talk on the radio!

    Regardless, I still get that cold feeling in the pit of my stomach when someone gives a position report, it is my position, and I neither see them outside or on the traffic display. That happened just the other day while flight testing a new RV6.

    As for the poll about what scares me, there is something that scares me a lot more than a mid-air: Icing. I will come back to that after I have addressed the rest.

    I have had 6 or 7 memorable encounters with severe to extreme turbulence in CBs, one of which result in a full upset with a roll to inverted. I teach UPRT and found that skill to be very useful. I have had a couple of engine failures too. I don’t worry about structural failure because I know how to protect the aircraft’s structure in an upset. Stalls and spins are things I do for practice and for fun.

    So why do I feel that icing generates the most fear for me? Simple. I can’t tell it is there ahead of time and when it happens, it changes the flight characteristics of the aircraft. All of the other fearful things (well except a mid-air) leave the airplane flying. Not so with icing. Experience it in winter with freezing levels all the way to the ground and you may have no escape and no way to safely control the airplane during landing/arrival. Fortunately I learned this lesson at the hands of a master pilot while I was still a student. The 310 we were flying (I was right seat) was down to 90KIAS, full power, descending at 700fpm, ice being thrown from the props against the nose, and the occasional stall buffet requiring the nose to be lowered further. It was a race to get to warmer air while the aircraft was still controllable. Yeah, that made an impression. If it had been freezing all the way to the ground …

    See you in the pattern.

    • The planes I fly are not equipped with any deicing equipment (aside from a heated pitot tube and window defroster), so icing has never been a big concern of mine. Why? Because if the ceiling is so low that I need to file and they’re below the freezing level, I don’t fly. And even if I did have deicing equipment, I would only fly if there are several airports along my route that I’d have a guaranteed out if needed.

  18. This list is taken directly from the FAA website.

    The Top 10 Leading Causes of Fatal General Aviation Accidents 2001-2016:

    1. Loss of Control Inflight
    2. Controlled Flight Into Terrain
    3. System Component Failure – Powerplant
    4. Fuel Related
    5. Unknown or Undetermined
    6. System Component Failure – Non-Powerplant
    7. Unintended Flight In IMC
    8. Midair Collisions
    9. Low-Altitude Operations
    10. Other

    It appears loss of control is the predominant factor in aircraft fatalities. Two of my aircraft are specialized for aerobatics and rarely fly straight and level long enough for the ADS-B in receiver equipped aircraft to get a ping on me. In fact, the IAC was able to get agreement with the FAA that a letter of noncompliance wouldn’t be sent to owners who fly acro planes and noncompliance is registered because they are engaged in unusual attitudes practice.

    • “…It appears loss of control is the predominant factor in aircraft fatalities…”
      Yep. But what precipitated LOC? First on the list is “System Component Failure – Powerplant”. Then we have all the other ‘leading causes’ listed thereafter. Based on the NTSB analysis of what they called the “Defining Event”, i.e. that event or failure which started the accident sequence the LOC-I statistic you’ve quoted is really the sum of poorly managed engine issues, fuel problems, the great ‘unknown or undetermined’, non-powerplant problems, VMC to IMC, low alt ops, and etc. Most pilots don’t crash when the engine quits or there’s a fuel issue (a bunch of which are starvation rather than exhaustion). Nor do pilots always crash when they lose visual reference to the ground or make really dumb decisions like attempting low level fly-bys and low level aerobatics. But some do because they forget to fly the airplane or push it outside its performance envelope – stall… and — LOC-I is the predictable result. IMHO, the LOC-I stat is a questionable label for the majority of aircraft accidents since the root cause (i.e. “defining event”) is usually something very different.