Aerial encounters

This article is an excerpt from Collins’s book The Next Hour. In this section, he shares the story of a mid-air collision he was involved in almost 60 years ago, and the lessons learned. The complete book is available from Sporty’s Pilot Shop. –Ed.

February 23, 1954. I was a 20 year old flight instructor and charter pilot in Camden, Arkansas. I also did a lot of forest fire patrol flying. We would look for smoke in the woods and report it. If there was a fire we would sometimes fly a person from the forestry service who would help the crews on the ground find fires and avoid situations where they might get trapped by the flames. Sometimes we would have two airplanes out there so we did have to be alert for other traffic.

Mid-air collision
The aftermath of a mid-air collision is usually ugly, although not always fatal.

I had already had a couple of friends killed in general aviation airplanes so I knew there were perils out there but I didn’t give it a lot of thought. At that age and time, if the bullet missed we just went on and let the good times roll.

The morning of the 23rd, I flew a charter in our Cessna 170. The first stop was Texarkana, Arkansas, then on to Shreveport, Louisiana, and then back to Camden. I had one student that afternoon, Jim Lewis. I have forgotten the exact time of day but the lesson of the day was takeoffs and landings in our trusty J-3 Cub, N77548. Seven fifty an hour solo, nine fifty dual. (I flew 572:30 that year so you can surmise that I wasn’t getting rich.)

The north/south runway was the main one, It had been extended to 3,600 feet so that Trans-Texas Airways DC-3s could come to call, I think four times a day. We had another “runway” that ran just north of west that came in handy behind cold fronts. It was squirt and gravel and about 1,000 feet long, more than adequate for a Cub into the wind.

Jim and I were 30 minutes into our flight, on final for the short runway. The runways weren’t connected. The short one started after we passed over the long one, more or less at a right angle. Jim was flying from the front seat. We let our students fly and solo from the front because they liked it that way despite the placard that said solo was to be from the rear seat only.

The sight picture of the approach end of the runway was perfect. The speed was perfect. It was a great day right up to the point where the innocence of the moment was lost. There was a flash of something, followed by quite a bit of noise, followed by the feeling that our Cub was injured and being jerked around, followed by an even louder noise. I took the controls and landed straight ahead, on the short runway. I knew that we had just had an encounter with another airplane at an altitude of 50 or 60 feet.

The left landing gear of the Cub was damaged and it collapsed when we landed but our speed was so slow that the airplane just rather slid to a stop almost straight ahead.

Jim and I made a hasty exit and looked to see what had happened to the other airplane. It was nose to the ground, tail broken off, in total disarray. That last loud noise that we had heard was the other airplane hitting the ground nose first. We recognized it as a Cessna 120 or 140 belonging to a radiologist from another town who flew to Camden on a fairly regular basis to practice his specialty. As we ran to it we saw the doc standing there by the airplane.

The airplane was so totally wrecked that I thought someone else must have been flying it and I actually asked the doc who was flying. He turned, looked at me like a person whose bell had just been rung loudly, and said, “I think that is the worst landing I ever made.” He didn’t realize there had been a collision, he was not much worse for the wear, and he was later killed in an airplane accident in another state.

So, the only two airplanes that were flying in the area managed to collide and I chalked up the only accident I ever had as pilot-in-command. The Cub needed a landing gear part, two new lift struts and associated parts, and a new prop to replace the one that chewed on the Cessna. I flew to a nearby airport the next day in my Piper Super Cruiser and got the parts. Don’t ask me how the J-3 lift struts traveled in my Cruiser. The day after that we had everything back together and I was again instructing in the Cub.

My interest in midair collisions was piqued. It was also a motivational experience for Jim Lewis. In addition to becoming an active and experienced pilot over time he had a career as an air traffic controller and manager with the FAA. Having been there and done that, he then spent much of the rest of his working time trying to keep airplanes apart.

Before that time, midair collisions hadn’t gotten a lot of consideration. There was a highly-publicized collision between an Eastern Air Lines DC-4 and a foreign P-38 at Washington National in 1949 and that was about it. A TWA Martin collided with an executive DC-3 at Cincinnati in 1955 but the granddaddy of them all occurred between two airliners over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956. It was that accident that put us on the course toward the air traffic control system that we have today.

Cerritos crash site
A series of high profile airline-GA mid-airs in the 1960s changed US airspace regulations.

The big effect on general aviation came from a series of midairs between GA airplanes and airliners, starting in 1967, where jet airliners were lost with all on board. There were two in 1967, at Urbana, Ohio, and Hendersonville, North Carolina, one in 1969 near Indianapolis and one in 1978 near San Diego. There were also a number of others where nobody on the airline aircraft was hurt but there was a lot of publicity. These collisions were all at relatively low altitudes between airplanes coming from or going to a nearby airport. The public demanded change. Certainly as general aviation citizens we would protest some of the changes that were proposed but deep down we knew folks were not going to ride on airliners knowing that a light airplane could come crashing through the windshield and doom all on board.

It was clear from these conflicts that something had to be done about the mix of traffic near airports. The FAA came up with the then-controversial plan to implement terminal control areas, TCAs, around busy airports. (This airspace later came to be called “Class B.”)

There was another collision in 1986, between a Mexican DC-9 and a Piper Archer over Cerritos, California. It occurred within the confines of a TCA and the Archer didn’t have an operating transponder as was required. There was no barn door to close after this horse was out so the FAA had to stretch to find a regulatory bandage for the accident. What they came up with was a requirement for transponders within 30 miles of a Class B airport. That might not have prevented the Cerritos collision but I guess it made them feel like they had done something.

From 1986 to this writing in 2009 there have been no further deadly midairs between airline and general aviation airplanes. Between better separation of traffic in busy areas and electronic on-board collision avoidance gear, most questions have been addressed. But anything that can happen will eventually happen so while not inevitable there is always a chance of another airline/GA midair collision. If and when it comes you can bet on a flurry of proposed restrictions on general aviation flying.

The FAA has changed a lot of things along the way, most of which were in response to specific accidents. The Grand Canyon collision was at 21,500 feet and all airspace above 18,000 feet has been under positive control for a long time now. The DC-9 that hit the Baron in Ohio was going like gangbusters and now the speed limit below 10,000 feet is 250 knots. The DC-9 that collided with the Cherokee near Indianapolis was only a few thousand feet high and a lot of flying miles away from the airport where it was supposed to land. That led the FAA into a “keep ‘em high” program for airline aircraft that kept them out of altitudes most used by light airplanes until they were closer to the airport.

Now airliners have to have TCAS (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System according to the FARs though some substitute the word “threat” for “traffic”), transponders are required in great gobs of airspace. And, oh yes, two-way radios have long been required at airports with operating control towers. In the 1950s I instructed a lot at controlled airports in airplanes without radios. At that time, light gun signals were deemed adequate.

Collisions between two general aviation airplanes never got the attention that was given to airliner collisions, either with each other or with a GA airplane. The GA/GA collisions are a factor, though, and when there is one it’ll almost always make the evening news. Also, to the people involved, a collision is a collision. It matters not who owns the other airplane.

ADS-B traffic screen
Can modern technology like TCAS and ADS-B traffic eliminate midairs?

Back in the sixties, my father, Leighton Collins, advocated in Air Facts magazine the use of a traffic pattern frequency at uncontrolled airports. The idea was for pilots to announce their position and intentions when arriving and departing. The FAA bought the idea and it became the CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency). There is no regulation about using this, only a recommendation, but over time it has come into wide use and it certainly helps sort out traffic pattern conflicts.

The NTSB has found that midair collisions most often involve recreational flights, not on flight plans, flying at or near uncontrolled airports below 1,000 feet above the ground. There’s a flight instructor in 37-percent of the airplanes involved in midairs, according to the NTSB. That is logical because the nature of instructional flying concentrates it in the area where there is the greatest chance of having a midair collision.

There was a nighttime collision near Teterboro airport in New Jersey between a business jet and a light airplane quite a while back. This was before the days of electronic help with other traffic. As often happened when I was Editor-in-Chief of Flying, the media called for some comment on the collision. They always wanted to know what would have prevented the accident. I thought about the jet crew looking for the light airplane against the matrix of lights on the ground and the first thing that came to mind was “better luck.” I decided that wouldn’t send a good message so I just said “vigilance.”

There is, however, a lot of luck involved. I have flown with otherwise fine pilots who never spend much time looking out the window. I know pilots who read newspapers and books while the autopilot takes care of the en route flying and navigating. It is a big sky and indeed a person’s luck has to be bad when an en route collision occurs.

Midair collisions are unlike most other accidents. They have no relationship to flying technique. Most happen in good weather so there is no weather involvement. They will continue to happen but one is less likely to befall a pilot who has an awareness of the riskiest areas and who uses everything that is available to keep up with other traffic. If the only available equipment is human vision, it must be used energetically.

9 Comments

  • It seems like the implementation and use of CTAF has been a good thing and ADS-B should help further. I have to believe that the availability and use of CTAF would have prevented Richard’s incident back then. Nevertheless, see and avoid was pretty viable back then with maybe half the total number of airplanes and most of those moving at Cub speed. I don’t think the GA-GA midair statistics have improved much over the years; they just remain at a low even level.

    The next really big midair though I think will involve an asteroid and a planet. The last one was bad for dinosaurers, the next one could be bad for us. It’s hard to say how much luck we’ve actually had and how much we have left. I’m pretty sure the amount left goes down with time.

  • The problem with vigilance is that the plane that will hit you will appear motionless against the background i. e. Extremely difficult to spot.
    Buy a Zaon.

  • As a student pilot building time in a C150 I remember looking out the rear window on an airway and noticing a twin on my tail. After it became apparent he didn’t see me I made a perpendicular turn and watched them go by.

    So I started flying Bonanzas to be less likely to get hit from the rear.

    20 years ago, to add safety, I was considering installing a Strikefinder and a Ryan TCAD, but couldn’t afford both right away. I had plenty of lightning detector and traffic avoidance brochures on board returning to Calif from OSH at 11000 ft over South Dakota when a Mooney suddenly appeared from our 10 o’clock position and almost ran into us. I bought the TCAD first.

    Other midair considerations:

    Do we want to all be squeezed into flat sheets of altitude or is it better to be +/- 200 feet from the “east is odd” rule while cross country?

    Always file IFR or use VFR flight following.

  • My closest call was when I was on a left downwind and another aircraft on a right downwind for the same runway at Sacramento executive. I was cleared to land and the other guy was to extend downwind. I turned base, and so did he. Instructor (during an IPC) and I both saw him. Tower asked him to call afterward.

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