Midairs: No, They’re Not Getting Worse


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.

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  1. Personally I think that mid air’s in the past we’re a result of looking but not seeing. Now they are a result of looking in the wrong place, the TV screen or the i-pad instead of out the window.

    I have no data to back that up just the fact that I see an awful lot of heads down pilots today….

    • and to that, David, I’d add spending TOO much time yakking on the radio vs keeping track of SA and looking out the windscreen, too. Just the other day, I was departing my rural airport for a short flight and some local was headed the opposite direction inbound. He makes about half a dozen radio calls from MILES away (no factor) and then adds he’ll stay well away from the airport until I’m north. Then, he admits that he sees me on his ADS-B in. Meanwhile, other airplanes are trying to get a few words in and this yokel is still talking. Before the guy landed — and then even during taxi — he’s still making call outs. I think he easily made 20+ calls. Geesh !!

      I have a radio tuned to unicom in my computer area. Late at night or very early in the AM, I hear people doing the same thing when there isn’t anyone but birds out. Why??

      Do CFI’s teach common sense anymore ?? Communication is for … um … communicating. If there’s no one there, you don’t need to communicate just cuz after a few callouts.

      • I can relate Larry. Some pilots at my home drone are totally in love with the sound of their voice when talking on ctaf.

    • I’m not sure it’s any worse today than years ago. At least these days, even when you’re heads-down you’ll likely see traffic information that might at least cue you to look out the window. sure, you won’t see all traffic but it’s better than in the days prior to ADS-B when all you’d see is the paper chart or GPS display you’re looking at.

      I also don’t think it’s really the CFIs “these days” to point the finger at either. In fact, I would say it’s more common for students (of all ages and experiences) to either ignore what their CFI is trying to teach them (because they “know what they’re doing” and don’t need a CFI to tell them what to do), or they behave like the model pilot while flying with an instructor, but as soon as they’re alone they revert to their natural behaviors. I don’t know what the cause of such behavior is, though.

  2. So another (too long) Old Man story about how I (and my student) narrowly missed being killed in a mid-air on short final at a Tower controlled airport, thanks first to a graceful God, and second, to my being somewhat cynical/suspicious.

    It was about 40 years ago. I was full time instructing at my home airport. I, and another instructor at the FBO, had been teaching at this airport for at least a year. The Tower knew our voices and the call signs of our planes, and we knew their voices. That is, we were familiar with the normal tone of things.

    On this day there were about five aircraft in the pattern doing Touch & Go’s, as well as other normal traffic in & out. Both I and the other instructor were in the pattern with students, also doing T’n’G’s.

    Our airport had (and still has) two parallel runways. In those days, one Controller handled both runways. (Later, with the advent of two (busy) flight schools, the Tower often split North and South runways between two Controllers on two different frequencies. And that creates a Situational Awareness problem, as below.)

    My student and I were on Final for the South runway. The other instructor was with his student, doing T’n’G’s on the North runway.

    I seem to have a knack for listening to background chatter on radios (have been a Ham operator since a teen) and I kind of subconsciously keep track where everyone is in the pattern. So I was surprised when I heard the Tower tell the other Instructor, somewhat urgently, to “Go Around,” because I knew that he had just turned downwind for the North runway.

    See, it’s good to be able to hear ALL that is going on around your airplane. When you can’t hear it all – as when the Tower splits and there’s a North and a South Controller on two different frequencies – you’re deprived of a LOT of information that might save your life. In fact, at ARINC meetings, airline pilots talked about losing the “Party Line” when DataLink was being developed.

    For example, you’re flying IFR in IMC at 7000′ talking to Center. You hear another aircraft report his position, which is near yours. Center assigns him 7000′ also. Now you’re on Alert. Did the Controller make a mistake?

    But you lose this kind of Situational Awareness when everyone is receiving their clearances/communicating silently via DataLink because you can’t hear what the Controller is telling someone else. And vice versa.

    Back to my story: About 20 seconds later the Controller again called my buddy’s Tail Number, more urgently now, telling him again to “Go Around!”

    The third time she called she was panicked. My buddy finally responded that he was on Downwind for the North.

    Now I knew that something was terribly wrong. I suspected that she had been trying to talk to me all this time.

    Why would she be calling for a Go Around?

    By this time my student and I were on short Final (for the South runway). I took the plane, applied full throttle and dove toward the threshold of the runway. (To pick up speed. This was a C-152 after all.) A few seconds later, a 172 flew over us, at about 50 feet, descending to land.


    It was only by the grace of God that he wasn’t below us when I chose to dive toward the runway.

    It was one of our FBO’s rentals. I later learned that the pilot never saw us. But his poor passenger in the rear seat saw everything, but was so terrified that he couldn’t speak.

    So as the article above says, try to cultivate Situational Awareness. It might save your life, not only while flying, but while driving (looking at brake lights three cars ahead, in your rear view mirror for cars speeding behind you), while walking (noticing who has been following you), etc.

    P.S. Later, I sent a letter to the Tower Chief telling my story and making a recommendation for training to avoid “Fixating.”

    Clearly the Controller had “fixated.” She kept calling my buddy’s Call Sign, thinking that she was calling me. But she wasn’t getting the response from me that she wanted.

    So after her second failed call to “me,” she should have changed her focus from a plane that wasn’t responding to the other plane. That is, she should have had a Plan B and should have called the aircraft overtaking me, telling him to “Go Around immediately and offset to the left. You’re overtaking a plane on Final.”

    • Excellent real life story of situational awareness and lack there of. Great piece. Situational awareness is everything.

    • Background communications on ground, tower, tracon, artcc are useful. I listen to them too. From another ham perspective: QRU (Have anything for me?). It has saved me from grief a couple of times. TWR: …position and hold (to me), . . .cleared to land, #2 traffic landing downfield (to inbound) … Inbound: Ahh twr, there’s an airplane on the RW, we’re going around. TWR: There is? Me: Um yep! That one wasn’t anything I could do about. The tapes confirmed we were cleared onto the runway, but the tower was busy and forgot about us.

      En route listening on freq gives me an opportunity to visualize the traffic in my mind with respect to my position whether I’m talking to ATC or not. The ADS-B confirms what I’m hearing now that it’s available. And sometimes it confirms what I cannot see visually. My last trip center called traffic twice in haze with fight vis > 30. Both me and my copilot who has eagle eyes did not see the traffic on both occasions, and the traffic did not see me. I turned based on ADS-B information and ATC confirmed my turn as appropriate.

      Never close to a near miss but it shows we must know and watch. Continuation bias has an aviation term that means approximately the same thing: cockpit complacency. Fix that and you can fix a lot of things and we are all complacent at one time or other, so I try not to be complacent about complacency.

    • Early in my flying lessons, we were at Palo Alto ( PAO ). PAO has ONE runway, and TWO patterns ( for the same runway ). On pattern is over the Bay, the other one over the houses.

      We turned base on the “houses” pattern and met another airplane on base for the “bay” pattern. I never saw my CFI move so fast.

  3. Watsonville – an alternative scenario to lack of situational awareness might be:

    “Might is right, I’m on a straight in (and someone aboard needs to pee)”.

    • For about 20 years now I’ve been intending to write a story titled “Outta my way, Peon Piston!” which Paul green lighted years ago. Oh well.

    • Watsonville is a busy uncontrolled field. And complicated. There are two intersecting runways. If you’re not a native, it’s easy to get confused.

  4. The straight-in crowd almost always are flying bigger or faster than the other bug smashers, feeling entitled to make everyone get out of their way. It’s especially irritating when tower controllers allow this instead of directing the aircraft to fly a normal approach speed.
    All GA flyers should remember that the news flash will lead with “small plane crashes”, whether it’s a 152, Meridian, or King Air.

    • Though to be honest, if I see somone like that in the pattern, I would but rather be behind the pants-on-fire aircraft than to have them behind me and being told to slow down. At least in the former situation, I can keep an eye on them.

      • Exactly. Pilots should follow rules and procedures, but if you are relying on that happening 100% of the time, you are going to get hurt. Number one – protect yourself. For example – don’t turn in front of a faster airplane. An airplane on an opposing close base may overshoot – don’t put yourself in a position where you may meet that overshooting airplane.

    • What you mentioned is definitely a reality. I was going to mention just that. I was doing pattern at P08 on RWY 23 for half hour early in the morning alone. Then another pilot comes in 10 miles away and start announcing landing on 05. I kept flying my patterns announcing 23 at every turn, must have done at least 2 patterns announcing upwind for 23, left crosswind for 23, downing for 23, left base for 23, final for 23, touch and go, all over again! The guy still announcing landing on RWY 05! I was watching his C172 like a hawk. When comes to enter the pattern he finally veered off and did not say a word anymore. Didn’t hear me? Didn’t see me? Expected me to change pattern because? I chose the pattern for a simple reason. Sun rising on my face on RWY 05. Wind nonexistent. Did he expect me to change pattern just because he did not wanted to enter to the opposite RWY from where he was coming? Unbelievable. Some pilots are just like that. They hear you, they hear other pilots and they keep announcing their own ways against what is already established by others. I have in my hands four more weird cases that are hard to believe. Just this weekend at CGZ. Pattern: IFR Student in for approach myself on the pattern and another guy after me also on the pattern. We are all landing on RWAY 05. Then suddenly this pilot with his Cherokee about 5 miles to the north calling landing on RWY 23. I couldn’t believe. I am here watching traffic like a hawk. The IFR is gone I am on left base for 05 and the pilot behind me on downwind for 05. I announced final for 05 the Cherokee announces final for 23 just after my announcement! I was baffled! I thought well if this son of a gun does not change his ways I will have to veer off. He finally realized his stupidity and announced he was changing his landing to 05. That’s the world we are living today. Pilot’s making mistake of all sort. Some are conscious of their ways others are not. In any case we have to have a backup plan for every situation so we can move away and not get too close to anyone. I do not trust, ADS-B, Tower, and Pilots 100%. I always think that mistakes could be in for a trap and when all those line up! BUM! Too late.

      • Can’t trust any of them. Biggest guess is when TWR, ADS-B, Pilot disagree, which one is right?
        Same with patterns: right tfc? left tfc? or whatever I want tfc?
        Eyes, Ears and Electronics…all are vital. Especially with NORDO Champs mixing in at the old aerodrome.

  5. See-and-avoid usually works for spam cans below 10,000 msl. It doesn’t work in the flight levels at jet true airspeeds.

      • I understand that, but that qualification was not stated in the article. Plus, there is a no man’s area between 10,000 and FL 180 where see-and-avoid doesn’t work and there is no regulatory protection other than an insignificant increase in minimum visibility.

        • Why doesn’t see and avoid work between 10K and 18K? Are you thinking because of the higher speeds? What’s your reason?

        • “10,000 and FL 180 where see-and-avoid doesn’t work and there is no regulatory protection other than an insignificant increase in minimum visibility.”

          Again, not supported by evidence. If this were true, there would be collisions every day. There are not. See and avoid is just not bulletproof at these altitudes, or anywhere.

        • I had a personal experience in 1984 or 85. I was flying a 767 from LAX to PHL with a 9:00 AM departure. (wx CAVU above the stratus.) It was the F/O’s leg. (very sharp man). Leaving 10,000 he decreased attitude to accelerate from 250 to 290 KIAS. Leaving 14,500 center issued a conflict alert (no previous traffic issued) “TWA 38 conflict alert, 12 o’clock, opposite direction!” The F/O wisely rolled into a left turn. We missed a turboprop commuter airplane by 300 feet laterally and 0 feet vertically. The commuter flight was IFR, VFR on-top at 14,500.

          This was in the pre-TCAS days. No doubt TCAS has been making the saves after it became a requirement a few years later. However, TCAS is not infallible.

          This was pre-TCAS.

  6. As a low time pilot, there has been always one principle that has reigned supreme, and that was “aviate, navigate, and (then) communicate”. This was distilled down ever further by one instructor to “fly the f#$@ing plane!”. It is nearly impossible for me to NOT reflect on these basic tenants during at least SOME phase every flight. I generally hate the idea of Monday morning quarterbacking, but something confuses me about the several reflection of this particular incident, and that is the several observations that state the 152 should NOT have turned base. Now we all here have the gift of being alive to peck away at a keyboard to express hind sights for the deceased, but I am kind of troubled by this one. The first reason is that Watsonville is a non towered airport and thus doesn’t even require a radio to be operating to be in the pattern. Second is that it’s my understanding tat this was a student pilot practicing touch and go’s. Now the only area where this would matter would be in his/her experience to deal with the inbound traffic (which there seems to be no dispute that he tipped the scale WELL past 50% in terms of culpability). Operating and having been taught at an incredibly busy non towered field, I have to wonder the take away. A pre solo “emergency” was with an instructor who switched off the avionics master said and “take us home”. Two perpendicular runways BOTH being used on a gusty day….and I am POWERLESS to communicate my intentions (or hear others with theirs). I simply can’t help to imagine if this situation would have been any different if it were an old timer in a Cub (sorry Paul….not you!! You are far too sprightly!!) with no radio simply boring holes in the sky. That 340 doing warp factor 5 at the 3 mile mark (AND short final) might never have been seen in the first place. Again, my heart aches for those involved, and no doubt if still with us, they would add to the coulda and shoulda’s. That said, I believe that there are far too many times where experience does not always translate to wisdom. Scott Perdue of “Flywire” fame has mentioned a few times the idea of having two buckets for the entirety of our aviation careers. One bucket is for SKILL while the other is for LUCK. The LUCK bucket depletes the more the SKILL bucket fills up. Tragically, the 340 pilot emptied HIS luck bucket…and that of the 152 as well. Again…Blue Skies to all.

    • PS: Apologies for the poor grammar above. My wife is the English major in the family, and I am on coffee #0.

  7. There’s more to the Watsonville midair than SA. The single pilot made his base turn AFTER the twin pilot announced a three-mile final. Why? Yes, the twin pilot was flying double his normal approach speed, but even at his normal 90 kts approach speed he would be far faster than a C-152. What would prompt YOU to turn base in front of a much faster plane on a three-mile final? When the twin pilot said he was looking for the traffic on base the single pilot immediately announced he had the twin in sight. This suggests to me that the single pilot was keeping the twin in sight because he knew there was a potential conflict. And he turned base anyway. This doesn’t seem like an SA problem.

    As for the twin pilot, he was still flying 180 knots at one mile on final to a 4500′ runway. This doesn’t seem like a pilot planning to land. Again, not an SA problem.

  8. “What happens if I screw up?”

    And ‘What happens if another driver errs?’

    Plus ‘What if something you don’t expect occurs?’

    Things I advocate be taught to new motor vehicle drivers, and the old-enough-to-know better jerks who follow me too closely in the cloverleaf with a huge rock in the middle that delays recognition of a crosswalk near the end. Hey bleep! an you stop before hitting me when I hit my brakes because a pedestrian rushes across my path from behind the bushes that incompetent highways maintainers do not hack back?

  9. A couple of years ago, a Mooney was in the pattern of our regional, non-towered airport. There were only two other planes around; a Cub and my Decathlon. We were nowhere near the Mooney, but the Mooney pilot talked and talked on the CTAF, asking where we were and what our intentions were. He came around to land, still talking, and the last thing he said was, “Well, I did it.” He landed gear up.

  10. SA is always a salient factor. Too, the FAA plays its’ part. Bear in mind: traffic on final essentially has right of way according to CFR. My little story was being roundly castigated for “cutting off” (I am assuming) a student pilot turning base towards me while I was on one mile final, despite numerous announcements from both of us. Lack of proper training? Not related to these accidents, but it IS strange that radio communication is not required at public use non towered airports. A J-3 pilot who can afford to fly these days can no doubt afford a handheld radio. Also, straight in is a necessary hazard: instrument training being a primary example. We need to be very careful up there.

    Frank L.

    • What is “on final”? I’ve been “on final” and cleared to land ten miles out. Other planes landed in front of me. If I had been under a mile out, it would have required action on my part.

  11. The obvious thing to me in the Watsonville accident is that the 340 pilot was lining up for a low pass. At 170 knots on short final there would have been no possibility of stopping the 340, he likely was not even going to get the gear down by the time he passed the end of the runway.

    The 152 pilot’s family should hire a good attorney. The 340 pilot certainly exhibited willful negligence.

    Having spent much of my career flying airplanes with performance like the 340 (all the King Airs, all the twin Cessna’s from the 310 to the Conquest I, and the Citation) I quickly learned to be cautious around the slower traffic, and to either fly a bigger pattern or do my best to keep my speed down, but above all fly a pattern, my favorite was a crosswind to downwind. Straight in approaches at uncontrolled airports are just stupid. How do you know what airport and runway conditions are if you haven’t seen it? Why the FAA hasn’t figured that out is beyond me.

    Practice approaches are an exception, but instrument flying in mixed airspace should be approached with extreme caution, and in most cases can be done at controlled airports just as well.

    • I wouldn’t use the blanket statement that straight-in approaches are always a bad idea. There are times when they make sense and are perfectly safe. The attentive pilot should always be evaluating the runway conditions regardless of what point in the traffic pattern they are in; even when flying a full pattern to a non-towered airport, there could be wildlife that suddenly enters the runway when you’re on short final. Keeping an eye out for that is no different than keeping an eye on the runway during a straight-in, as long as it was safe to do the straight-in in the first place.

      • “ I wouldn’t use the blanket statement that straight-in approaches are always a bad idea”
        That is not what he said – he said at UNCONTROLLED airports. And he is right – straight in at uncontrolled airports, if not a practice IFR, is stupid. It’s just being lazy and bad piloting.

    • Are you talking about a mid-field crosswind to downwind or a crosswind off the departure end of the runway? Are you sure you can see a plane that is departing straight-out? If you’re flying a bigger pattern he might be reaching your altitude as you’re crossing the extended centerline on crosswind.

  12. I know this will offend some, but I am astonished by the number of pilots who denigrate the importance of their radios in developing & maintaining situational awareness. It is the first layer in your layered defense.

    Yes, those excessive transmissions on CTAF may be annoying, but don’t tune them out. In the “uncontrolled” airport environment, listening to what is going on and incorporating that information into your SA is absolutely your best tool for having advanced knowledge of what you will be dealing with. In accident after accident, advance warning of what happened was right there, being delivered right to the pilot’s ears but ignored, discounted or misunderstood.

  13. Situational Awareness (SA) is one way to prevent midairs but the ‘Big Sky Theory’ (BST) is most likely the reason there isn’t more midairs. The BST is that: the odds of sharing the same spot in the three dimensional sky at the exact same time is very low. The odds obviously go up with airport environments were we share the same airspace. Airports have a track/pattern that we are all trained to follow and timing then becomes the separator.

    The reason I believe Midairs are so studied and conversational is because your Experience levels is not a preventable factor. Midairs happen to the lowest and highest time pilots.

    When engine manufactures recommendation’s on engine maintenance is followed failures are very rare. Yet, Experience is a factor for having a safer power-off landing when an engine does fail. Experience can land an airliner in the middle of the Hudson river without a life lost. Experience doesn’t prevent having a Midair with a flock of geese.

  14. One thing not mentioned is the use of lights. I learned very early to turn on all of my aircraft lights when a few miles out from pattern entry. Let’s face it, most aircraft are difficult to see in the daytime whether with an earth or sky background. LED lights especially last forever so there is no excuse not to light up if you got ‘em.

  15. This accident reminds me of this old ditty:
    Here lies the body of William Jay,
    Who died maintaining his right of way—
    He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
    But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.

  16. After the controller strike, near misses were fairly common, and pilots literally had to second guess their clearances, while keeping a sharp lookout for conflicting traffic at controlled airports. This tragedy should teach pilots to keep pace with the traffic flow, and grant priority to aircraft on final–at least within 3 miles. I personally would have told the 340 pilot that I’m extending downwind, and give him the nod to land ahead of my aircraft. I scratched my head when I heard the 152 pilot’s base turn call.

  17. I agree with everything that Paul says about SA. But there’s a good chance there’s more to the story: the good old “deer in headlights” syndrome.

    I’m being very presumptuous here because I didn’t look into the details Watsonville accident (I admit I was too lazy to). But a C152, more often than not, indicates some sort of student pilot situation. It’s entirely possible that the pilot had the SA, but was taking just a few seconds too long to work out what to do. You’re on the last stretch of base, about to turn final, and you see traffic approaching from outside the pattern. Where do you go? Away from the traffic means turning final. Just how steep of a bank angle can you safely fly in trying to stay inside of the extended center line? Or do you turn away from base? That’s turning into the traffic. Can a 152 climb fast enough to get above the other plane’s approach path? Where is that path, actually? How fast is that plane (remember: possible low-time pilot)?

    I know I’ve been in situations where I should have made a decision faster – in deteriorating weather conditions, for instance. And I remember the feeling of “I know I need to do something, but what’s the best course of action here?” – and this feeling lasting way too long.

    I don’t think we spend nearly enough time (if at all) in flight training practicing such situations. I didn’t have an instructor yell at me without prior warning “traffic, two o’clock, quarter of a mile, inbound, fast” while I was doing pattern work. I know it’s annoying. We all just want to go places fast and enjoy the view. But the neurological connection from SA to the right action (or at least a good one) is a crucial link in the chain. And I feel we’re not doing enough to build up the muscle memory that can shorten that link dramatically. We do for go-arounds, stalls, and engine failures, but that’s about it.

  18. As I’ve taught my engineering students and employees when dealing with equipment that can kill them – expect the unexpected. Don’t live in fear but be prepared for others who do dumb things. When I approach an airfield with chatter boxes in the pattern, I stay further away until they’ve landed. Glider pilots are probably the best at avoiding collisions as their heads are by nature outside of the cockpit.

  19. Without first hand knowledge of the experience level of the 152 pilot, if he was indeed a student (or very low time) pilot, there’s a chance he may have not been familiar with exactly what a 340 is, and how fast it could be going.

    Along those lines, did the 340 pilot call out that he was a 340, or simply a ‘twin Cessna’, leaving the door open for it being a 310 right up to a Conquest?

    My point in this – while yes the 340 pilot should have been slower and probably not taken the straight in approach with traffic in the pattern, and conversely the 152 pilot shouldn’t have turned base in front of oncoming traffic on a 3 mile final, there’s a chance that the 152 pilot doesn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all aircraft types and their performance levels.

    Even if the 340 had been at a more reasonable approach speed, it could have been going faster than the cruise speed of the 152, and if the performance of the 152 was that pilot’s only frame of reference, another aircraft on a 3 mile final meant, to him at least, far more working time to land ahead of the other aircraft than was the reality in this case.

    For my money, I’ll take a go around at any sign of a problem or possible conflict unless I’m out of gas or on fire. I spend a good deal of my non flying time thinking about flying, so once I’m actually flying it’s not hard to convince me to stay aloft for a few more minutes and take another lap in the pattern.

  20. Both accidents involved seasoned pilot and students. From the preliminary info, the pilot of the Malibu was the faulty party, and in Watsonville the 340 appeared was going to fast and overtook the 152. My question is whats the age of the Pilots?

  21. Regarding radio calls, I sometimes hear pilots transmit “Traffic in the area, please advise.” This is NOT an FAA approved transmission. 4-1-9(g)(1). No answer doesn’t mean “none” and five answers is just confusing. Come on, instructors, teach proper position reporting.
    Mike M

    • I would admonish other pilots to “Keep up the chatter” at busy, uncontrolled airports. If you don’t see them, at least they’ll let you know where they are.

  22. Paul, to your knowledge have there been any mid-airs during the weekend arrivals to AirVenture over the years?

  23. Rule#1 Whether riding my motorcycle or flying my plane I ride/fly assuming others are out to kill me and my task is to not give them the chance.

    Rule#2 All we know about pilots flying high performance aircraft is they have lots of money or fly for someone who does. We cannot assume they have good judgement or even good piloting skills so give them them lots of leeway ( see rule #1).

    I fly from a large GA airport with constant high performance traffic. My instructor friend is constantly reminding me to check final so as “ to not back into “ one of these hotshots flying long straight in approaches. When ever I hear them announce I either fly a short approach often flying my base leg straight to the numbers to clear the pattern ASAP ( I have a 5000’ runway to use so I don’t need a long final) or I will loiter and let the high speed traffic land first. I often do this as a courtesy as I am just flying for fun whereas they are often flying for business. Time is money. I get that. But mostly I think of rule number 1 and not give them a chance to kill me.

    One last thought. Know your local pilots. We have a guy that hops rides in a warbird pulling chandelles right off the runway into the pattern. When he flies, I don’t . See rule #1.

  24. Twenty-five years ago on the downwind to landing leg of my first solo glider flight, the handheld radio that my instructor had handed me came alive as the pilot of a twin engine aircraft three miles out on a straight-in for landing announced his intentions. I returned the favor reporting, “on downwind about to turn to base,” adding the word, “glider,” then listened for any reply. The radio was silent, and I couldn’t spot the twin. Talk about hanging in the air. My thoughts intuitively rejected tangling with a powered aircraft, and there was no time or extra momentum to fiddle on the radio. While reporting my intention, I turned to a short base leg to be followed quickly by another turn to a final leg that would float me over the aged wood and barbed wire airport boundary fence, onto the slightly upward sloping, well worn, dirt in front of the little shack that served as my instructors office, where he was standing. Bracing myself for what was coming next, I released the canopy to be greeted with, “the twin did a go around, didn’t you hear the radio call?” I replied, “No.” He looked at me and said, “Nice landing.” The Watsonville accident triggered the memory of that beautiful late morning when the postman, seeing the magazines delivered to my mailbox, asked me to explain, “what happened?” I shared this story with him, and summed it up this way: “The pilot of the twin yielded to the glider that day; and, the student glider pilot wasn’t willing to risk meeting a fast airplane in an unfortunate way while on final. No one gave way to the other in Watsonville.”

  25. “The straight-in crowd almost always are flying bigger or faster than the other bug smashers, feeling entitled to make everyone get out of their way. It’s especially irritating when tower controllers allow this instead of directing the aircraft to fly a normal approach speed.”

    I fly a wide variety of aircraft–from ultralights and LSAs to helicopters and gliders–as well as 6 jet types. Addressing the concern above–it is difficult for both controllers and jet pilots to “fly the pattern”.

    Turbine aircraft are almost always on an IFR flight plan. Even on a perfectly clear day, they must either have the airport in sight, or be familiar with the airport environment in order to fly a visual approach–and that’s hard to do on a 10 mile final. (they may actually be in-cloud on a day with marginal ceilings and visibility). That means that they are still IFR, without the field in sight–and trying to transition to VFR conditions for landing.

    Asking those aircraft to try to come up overhead and fit into a VFR traffic pattern filled with slower aircraft is difficult for both the crew and the controller–thus the “cleared for the approach–report the field in sight” gives the controller a better chance to provide separation by extending the downwind for traffic in the pattern.

    Years ago, FAA had a program for inviting small groups of pilots into the tower to watch and learn procedures and operations by a not-on-the-mike controller. Does anybody know if that program is still in effect? It would lead to better understanding–for BOTH IFR and VFR pilots.

  26. On a separate but related subject: OVERUSE OF CTAF.

    I operate a small but busy GA airport. Recently, flight instructors have been advising over-use of radio calls in the traffic pattern. “Taxiing to the runway, taking the runway, departing runway XX, staying in the pattern, crosswind for runway XX, downwind for runway XX, base for runway XX, final for runway XX.”

    That’s 6 to 8 radio calls for a 4-5 minute circuit–or a call every 30 seconds or so. Put 4 or 5 aircraft in the pattern, and there is constant radio chatter. The GOOD NEWS is that any arriving pilot knows the runway in use–the BAD NEWS is that pilot may not have the time to make a radio call of his/her own to advise the intentions of fitting in the arriving aircraft to the traffic pattern.

    How many radio calls is “enough”? I’d say “departing runway XX for closed traffic” and “downwind turning base for XX” is the minimum–but certainly NOT 8 calls! Somehow, pilots believe that “MORE is BETTER”–and that it somehow “inoculates” them from a mid-air. Neither one is true.

    I remind the pilots and instructors of the old aviation maxim “Airplanes fly by the principles of Bernoulli–NOT Marconi” and that “MORE is not always better” (exemplified by the old “The book says 80 mph on final, but it feels so good at 90 that I use 100 mph!”)–all in the interest of a perception of “safety.” FLY THE AIRPLANE–NOT THE RADIO.

    • “Begin downwind RWY XX” is essential in my opinion, because arriving traffic will merge into the downwind. So is “Final RWY XX” incl. intentions (we use “full stop” and “touch-and-go”). This is important information for planes on the ground waiting to line up and planes behind you in the circuit: are you going to backtrack or be out of the way quickly?