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One fine Sunday morning last October, my wife and I were winging our way westward across southern Illinois at 3500 feet. We were returning home from a visit to see her mother who was recovering from a fall. The relatively low altitude was to avoid stronger headwinds higher up. The local terrain elevations put us on the edge of the “hemispherical cruising rule.” As always, I was getting flight following from ATC.

airplanes converging

Eyes outside – especially on VFR weekends.

The problem was that radar contact had temporarily been lost. That meant I needed to be looking out the window every now and then. This thought occurred to me while staring at the GPS moving map display. I looked up just in time to see a high-wing Cessna at the same altitude approaching head-on at about a half–mile away. It did not take long to realize the situation required some corrective action. I punched off the autopilot, swung to the right, and watched as the other airplane passed to our left without altering course in the slightest.

Thinking we had now had our close call for the day, I started to relax when Center told me that we were back in radar contact. Not 15 minutes later, I was given a traffic advisory at the two o’clock position, same altitude, and southwest bound. I imagined this might be a converging situation, so I kept looking for the traffic. Sure enough, shortly thereafter a dot appeared in the windshield at the two o’clock position and slowly grew larger. It became increasingly apparent that once again something would have to be done. Off came the autopilot, a descent was initiated, and we watched as another high-wing Cessna passed directly overhead without altering course in the slightest.

I have been flying small airplanes on and off for several decades. I have had close calls before. They tend to happen quickly. I had never had two close calls inside of 20 minutes before that particular Sunday. The FAA says that most midair collisions occur in VFR weather during weekend daylight hours. That is exactly what we had going. It is very easy to get complacent in those conditions, and that is why midairs happen.

One could say that I should have been at 4500 feet MSL because I was VFR westbound. That would have theoretically eliminated the first threat, but not necessarily the second. Even if the moral of the story is to cruise higher than 3000 feet above the ground regardless of the wind, it is not always practical to do so.

There is another contributing factor besides complacency. An airplane on a collision course will appear to have no relative motion. This makes it very difficult to detect with the human eye. A moving target is much easier to spot, but a moving target is actually less of a collision threat. This link graphically illustrates how easy it is for your eyes to play tricks on you in this regard. Keep them moving when you are scanning for traffic!

Dan Littmann
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9 replies
  1. Geewiz
    Geewiz says:

    “That meant I needed to be looking out the window every now and then.”

    This is a great reminder that we should always be keeping our eyes outside of the aircraft, and looking inside “every now and then.”

  2. David
    David says:

    I was flying in the back seat of an Archer that had just had a 430 and a Mode S transponder installed and it was configured to show traffic. The two guys up front were marveling at the traffic being displayed when I interrupted and said “Hey guys, how about that glider out there?”

    Lesson learned.

  3. Bob Blasky
    Bob Blasky says:

    They developed the hemispheric cruising rule to avoid such conflicts. At 3500 you should have been well above the terrain and following the rule. You are lucky you didn’t take others lives. For what? To avoid some headwinds 1000 feet higher? Don’t be a selfish idiot and just follow the rules! Depending on ATC to provide flight following and avoid other traffic is dangerous. ATC priorities place “flight following” low on their list.

    • Dan Littmann
      Dan Littmann says:

      Bob, I suggest you reread the article. The first encounter was with eastbound traffic. The second encounter was with westbound traffic. How would this have been any different at 4500 feet? What if I was a VFR pilot flying beneath a 3500 foot overcast?

      • Bob Blasky
        Bob Blasky says:

        Dan, I read your article. I was referring to your first encounter. Clearly, if you had been at 4500 feet you would have avoided both close calls. Not knowing the exact flight paths of you and the second aircraft I can’t comment on that one. Clearly you were aware you were “on the edge” of having to follow the flight rules. How close were you to the edge? 100 feet? Terrain in southern Illinois can be 500-600 ft msl. But cutting to the chase, here is my point. It is my opinion, as a law enforcement pilot with 32 years of flying experience, that perhaps next time you should consider not being so close to the edge. Go to 4500 feet, enjoy the extra 10 minutes of flight time, and increase your safety margin.

        • Andrzej
          Andrzej says:

          I am not a real life pilot, I only flew a s student several times but I was always wondering about the 3000 AGL rule.

          So assuming that terrain was 500-600 MSL, does it mean that if I was flying for example 2700 MSL, I would be below 3000′ AGL and I would not have to follow E-W rule?

          Would it be safer that flying like Dan described?

    • Brian
      Brian says:

      “The rule” you are referring to begins at 3,000′ AGL. Since clearly states that he was below 3,000′ AGL (second to last paragraph) while at 3,500′ MSL, he was following the rules. However just because it legal does not mean it was the best solution (hence, the point of his article).

      Name calling is so unbecoming… especially when you are incorrect.

  4. William
    William says:

    Didn’t realize that most midairs occur on weekends – makes sense. Good lesson on safety for all of us. I think it would strengthen your point to say that while in VMC, it is the pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid traffic whether operating under VFR or IFR. That’s straight out of the FARs and basic ground school knowledge. Radar is nice, but doesn’t relieve you of the need to scan for traffic.

  5. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    FWIW, my CFI made the point to fly near, but maybe not right on the E/W altitude rule. Doesn’t let you ignore the need to have your eyes outside, but might just provide that additional measure of clearance to avoid a midair. My CFI also shared a near collision he had when flying directly south and a second aircraft heading westerly direct into the setting sun passed so closely overhead that he heard the other aircraft over his. It also happened to be that my CFI recognized the other aircraft and knew its pilot. He later asked that pilot if he ever saw my CFI’s aircraft, and the response was a blank stare. I hope that story helps others recognize how glare in an otherwise perfect sky can make sighting another aircraft even more difficult.

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