I don’t know about you, but I long ago gave up on the notion of the perfectibility of homo the sap. At this stage, I’m happy to settle for a modest majority case of veering away from the most lethal things in aviation and if you follow accident reporting, you’d be forgiven for believing we aren’t doing very well at that. It’s not true of course, since accidents happen to very few of us. The actual number is a fraction of one percent.
Still, when we cover an accident like the tragic midair in Watsonville, California, last week hot on the heels of another one in North Last Vegas almost a month to the day earlier, it’s easy to believe the sky is literally falling, at least with regard to midairs. It isn’t. As Aviation Safety Institute’s Richard McSpadden reports in this video, the long-term number of midairs is about a half-dozen a year and that number has actually trended down slightly from two decades ago. ADS-B and/or traffic alert systems may have something to do with that. Whether that’s true or not, if you’re looking for something new in all the accident coverage now available almost within hours of crash, good luck. The idea of this coverage, of course, is to burn into your memory the details of the deceased pilot(s) errors so you won’t repeat them. As far as midairs go, it’s pretty simple: Don’t hit the other guy. Back it up from there and you can figure out the two or three things you need to do to accomplish this. Not to denigrate the dead, but I find it implausible that the pilots who died in these recent crashes—four total, not counting the pax—would not have known the basic things they needed to do to avoid a collision. They watch the videos, too, right?
The question is why didn’t they? What’s the mechanism that causes someone who can’t possibly escape knowing where the risks of aviation come to a sharp, painful point allows him or herself to become so utterly complacent as to literally die for being too blase to lift a finger? Psychologists have all kinds of terms for this, one of which is called continuation bias. (“Hey, things are going OK here, we haven’t blown up yet, so let’s press on.”) It’s also tempting to finger something in training, procedures or the ATC system that’s fundamentally wrong and must be fixed. Well, good luck with that, too. If you consider midair pilots as a subset of accidents, the number is something like 0.01 percent. If a subset of pilots, it’s a fraction too small to be worth mentioning. Moving the numbers meaningfully at such vanishingly small risks with the blunt tools available to GA is a fantasy.
McSpadden and Juan Browne in his analysis of the Watsonville accident rightly review the recommended procedures for reducing risk in airport traffic patterns, but I think there’s a larger consideration here that applies throughout the entire flight: situational awareness. I have always defined this as a series of questions: Where am I? Who or what’s around me? What happens next? What happens if I screw up? What happens if someone else does? I think it’s clear that the pilot of the twin Cessna in the Watsonville crash lacked even minimal SA. He was flying a straight-in approach at the speed of heat and setting himself up for a classic, high-wing/low-wing midair and that’s exactly what happened 200 feet above the runway. And if he had a good SA picture, he failed to act on it. The Cessna 152 pilot he overran appeared to understand what was happening, but acted too late to avoid the collision.
The pilot of the Malibu that collected a Skyhawk over North Las Vegas may have been similarly oblivious to the developing pattern geometry that would put the Piper into the face of the 172 flying an opposite pattern to a parallel runway. All of this should have been clearly audible on the tower frequency, although the audio I listened to is too noisy to determine whether ATC warned the Malibu of the Cessna’s presence on the parallel runway. The tower did carefully clarify that the Malibu was cleared to land on Runway 30L, but then it lined up on 30R, where the Cessna was flying a closed pattern. At least one of the people aboard the Malibu was apparently familiar with North Las Vegas and the runway layout.
We can take all kinds of flyspeck lessons from these two accidents but to me, the overarching consideration is situational awareness. From that broad platform, all the details on specific tactics flow. The more accident videos I see (and produce), the more I think this is getting down to social Darwinism. You can’t completely depend on ATC to buttress your SA with timely point-outs. Controllers do an admirable job but there are accidents where they haven’t. ADS-B is as close to an SA godsend as we’re likely to see, but when the ranges draw short, you still have to put eyes on the other airplane. And vice versa. The unique thing about midairs is that it almost always requires both pilots to be out of the SA loop and that appears to be the case here, with the exception of the 152 pilot at Watsonville who seemed somewhat aware of the risk, but not so much that it stopped him from turning base in front of a twin Cessna barreling down final like a lawn dart.
A point of departure here is to reignite the claim that see-and-avoid doesn’t work. This has always seemed ludicrous to me. Of course it works. If it didn’t, most of us would be dead and the rest wouldn’t be flying. It just doesn’t work perfectly every time. So what I take from these two accidents is nothing about pattern entries, or radio procedures, or how fast to fly a final or even when to look out the window. It’s the larger sense of situational awareness to apply to every aspect of flying, from the preflight, through planning, all the way to landing.
What’s out there that will kill me and how can I keep it from doing that? If just one of the pilots in these two crashes had done that, I wouldn’t have written this blog.