This month’s Close Call occurred in Alberta in August of 2006. Our pilot was a taking a friend on a short pleasure ride one beautiful summer Saturday morning. Pilot and passenger took off just after sunrise from Cold Lake Regional Airport (CEN5) and headed east towards Meadow Lake. The plan was to venture out for about 40 minutes and then return back to Cold Lake Regional. As this was a sightseeing trip, our pilot intended on flying a leisurely “low-n-slow” cruise – approximately 3,500 ASL – to get some great photos of the local landscape.
Cold Lake is one of those places where the regional airport in encapsulated within the greater circle of a class D control zone because of the nearby Cold Lake military air field (CYOD). Pilots taking off from the regional airport have to communicate with CYOD’s tower on the base to obtain clearance to fly through the class D zone to their destination. It is for this reason that there are three designated entry and exit routes to be used by general aviation traffic, as stipulated in the Cold Lake VFR Terminal Procedures Chart in the CFS. It happens that the exit route to the east through the class D zone is the same route used for entry from the east as well. For both of them the maximum altitude is 2,900 feet ASL.
Upon the completion of their sightseeing run, our pilot and passenger were headed westward through the class D zone on the way back to Cold Lake. The still rising sun was reflecting on the clouds and now full in their eyes. There were clouds at about 4,000 feet ASL which helped to block some of the sun but not very much. Scanning for traffic was certainly a fair bit more challenging than usual. Our pilot’s sixth sense (who he endearingly and amusingly names “Fred”) was nagging at him for not being able to see far enough ahead into the glare for his liking. Our pilot decided to lower altitude to 2,500 feet ASL in an attempt to avoid traffic at the more common 2,900 feet ASL - just in case. “Fred’s” instincts proved accurate as just then another aircraft announced its departure from Cold Lake Regional eastbound towards them. ATC provided the other aircraft with an advisory of our pilot’s presence and position and directed them to remain below 2,900 feet ASL.
Our pilot proactively updated his position on both the tower and regional frequencies. Shortly thereafter, our pilot’s PCAS displayed the oncoming traffic as 5.8 nautical miles straight ahead, then 5.6, then 5.4 miles… at exactly the same altitude! Our pilot’s eyes pierced the sky as he was scanning for the oncoming traffic, but the sun reflecting on the clouds continued to make it almost impossible to spot him. Our pilot once again called the tower and advised that has not yet been able visually spot the approaching aircraft adding “…but my collision advisory has him pegged on my same altitude, and coming straight at me.”
It was at that point that the tower advised the other plane to make an steep turn to the south immediately. Once in the turn our pilot finally did spot the target aircraft - less than a half mile away, at his 11 o'clock position and at the same altitude. Closing in on each other at up to 200 knots plus, there was indeed little time to spare.
During a self-assessment our pilot wonders if maybe he should have been more assertive, and instead of staying on course told ATC that he was diverting well away from his path to avoid oncoming traffic. Since then our pilot has installed HID wingtip lights coupled to a PulseLite system. And of course his PCAS XRX that he claims “saved his bacon.”