Close Calls by Anthony Nalli (14)
Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. Determining a close call can be quite subjective but for our purposes here a close call will be any situation where a pilot suddenly finds themselves in a potentially dangerous situation quite unexpectedly.
This month’s Close Call comes from our Facebook group. Our pilot was working on their private pilot license doing her second solo in the circuit (traffic pattern). Just before going up that day our pilot’s instructor advised her of another student in the circuit with his instructor practicing their touch and go's. The other student was fairly new and had not yet worked on the radio so his instructor managed his communications for him. In the tower that day was a very friendly and somewhat casual controller that used simplistic language presumably to help ease the other student into the aviation vernacular.
A few circuits in, our pilot was nearing pattern altitude and about to turn downwind when ATC advises "Alpha Bravo Charlie, traffic at your 12 o’clock, a Cessna 150" but no mention of altitude. Without an eye on the traffic our pilot responds "Alpha Bravo Charlie is looking". A few seconds later and still looking, ATC calls sounding a little nervous "Do you have the traffic? Very close at your 12!"- "Negative, I DO NOT have the traffic" she replies. As she’s about to ask about the target’s position and altitude ATC emphatically demands "ALPHA BRAVO CHARLIE SQUAWK IDENT!"
To add to the confusion, our pilot learned later that when she was instructed by the tower to squawk Ident, both her and the other aircraft did just that at the same time! ATC repeated the Ident instruction three times specifying our pilot’s call sign and all three times both aircraft “lit up like crazy on radar and there was no telling who was who”.
Our pilot begins to wonder why she couldn't see the traffic. It was a very clear day and from the sounds of it they were very close by. Thinking she was at fault and wondering how to get out of this without getting killed, our pilot remembers her instructor mentioning that in cases like this to descend about a hundred feet to make it easier to see without the horizon adding confusion. Just as she was preparing to descend our pilot took another quick look and finally spotted the other 150 peeling to right base about 30 feet below. “Had I pulled the power at that time we would have collided” she reflects.
“When I finally had the traffic I distanced myself, landed, and called it a day. After that, I decided I would wait for the other student and instructor in the lobby so I could talk to them and go over the mistakes of the events as for it not to happen again. It gave me time to think, why was he squawking when he wasn't being spoken to? Why didn't his instructor stop him? Why were they below circuit height? Why didn't ATC give me their altitude? Why did ATC wait until the last minute to tell me about the traffic? And why didn't I see the traffic earlier?”
“They finally landed and I approached the instructor by letting him know that I was the other 150 in the circuit. He explained that his student kept on squawking and he didn't have the time to stop him or let him know what was going on because they were practicing forced approaches (which explained the altitude they were flying at). Not knowing the gravity of the situation, he let out a little laugh until I cut him off with the facts of how close we were. I figured out that I didn't see the traffic because I was in a climb attitude when ATC told me about the traffic. By the time I leveled off to take a look they were already right below me.”
Our pilot concludes “This just goes to show that even instructors can get complacent. It doesn't matter how confident you are in a plane, if there is an alarming situation developing, don't leave it up to the other aircraft to figure it out because that might get you killed.”
We all love a beautiful day. High ceilings, good visibility, calm winds. These are days when every pilot looks to the sky and hears it calling. And many of us respond to that call making the sky just a little bit smaller.
We were on a day cross country to Boston from the Toronto area. We had just departed Albany (KALB) after clearing Customs and were directed eastbound on course to 5,500 feet. We remain on frequency with Albany Departure for flight following until they were ready to hand us off to Boston Center. We keep a listening watch of the flurry of GA activity on the frequency including some nearby skydiving in the area. Despite being busy it sounds as though we’re away from most of it.
We level off and were getting ready to cross over the mountains when our trusty PCAS advises us of traffic ahead and to the right, same altitude, 2.5 miles, and closing. All four on board take to scanning the sky paying particular attention to the quadrant between 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock. The traffic continues to close through 2.0 miles. I continue my lookout, every so often glancing at the screen for target trends.
As the target closure is nearing 1.0 nm I prepare to take action in an effort to create some space between us and our target, both still reported at 5,500 feet. Just then Albany calls. With an ominous steady beeping heard in the background (that I afterward assume may have been some sort of ATC traffic proximity warning) we are issued the rapid-fire command “Fox Lima Romeo India, descend 500 immediately, traffic your 2 o’clock, same altitude… descend immediately!”
Forward on the controls, I acknowledge “Fox Lima Romeo India descending now.” Within what felt like just a few seconds we finally visualize our target now just above us to our right and starting to cross behind us proceeding due northwest. I’ll admit that as Close Calls go for me, this was about as close as I’ve personally experienced.
Let’s review. We were eastbound at 5,500 feet. Check. Using flight following. Check. Maintaining a lookout (times four). Check. Monitoring area activity. Check.
Our target was northwest bound at 5,500 feet. Not climbing or descending. And not communicating with area controllers.
Had we have not changed altitude, directed to or not, the outcome might have been very different. It really makes you think. You can be doing all the right things but what the other guy is doing is out of your hands. In the case of a mid-air, being right might be nice, but it doesn’t change the result in the end.
This situation was managed calmly and effectively with the help of technology and ATC and serves to reinforce the message I’ve been repeating for months. Use flight following, communicate, monitor, lookout, and use available technology – all in combination. As more and more of us do all of these things, the safer our skies will be for us all.
A ‘Close Calls (Aviation)’ group has been created on Facebook. Connect with pilots and enthusiasts from across North America and read the entire series of Close Calls articles online. To join the ‘Close Calls (Aviation)’ Facebook group free, visit www.facebook.com.
My first story is one of my own. It was a beautiful summer day. My brother and I were returning to Brampton from a day trip in Parry Sound after a round of golf. Our route would have us flying southbound over Midland then around Canadian Forces Base Borden then under the northwest portion of the class C rings of Toronto Pearson as we descend into Brampton. We duck under the outer rings at about 3,400’ MSL east of Orangeville and head towards the Caledon Gravel Pits. This is a common callout point for local traffic approaching Brampton as it’s 8 NM northwest of CNC3 directly along Highway 10. Local pilots generally stay east of Highway 10 when heading northbound (towards the practice area north of Orangeville, for example) and stay west of Highway 10 southbound. This area is also where the next layer of Pearson’s airspace reaches 2,500’ MSL.
We call our position on the Brampton CTAF. “Lima Romeo India is southbound over the Caledon Gravel Pits at 2,400 feet inbound to land, Brampton.” We then repeat the call on 126.7. As I do this my trusty PCAS (Portable Collision Avoidance System) alerts me of a nearby aircraft. Given the usual volume of traffic in this area, advisory messages aren’t uncommon. I often observe the distance and relative altitude quickly and resume my extra keen lookout. This traffic display was a little different though. 2.1 miles, same altitude. Then 2.0 miles… 1.9 miles… 1.8 miles, same altitude. I did hear a couple of aircraft recently depart Brampton – one for the circuit, the other for the practice area, but the latter aircraft shouldn’t be this close yet, and no one else has called over the Gravel Pits so there must be someone else out here!
My XRX is pointing out the traffic in my left quadrant. That’s where the traffic heading to the practice area WOULD be, but again there’s no way they could be here yet. I call my position again at the south end of the Gravel Pits and continue to lookout while starting my descent to 2,000’.
The traffic is now displayed as 1.0 mile away, 200 feet above, in my aft quadrant. I look around and finally see the target at my 7-8 o’clock position flying east to west about to cross behind me. Thankfully, no threat. But what if I’d have been cruising half a knot slower or departed 30 seconds sooner? How much closer might this have been? This aircraft did not respond to my position reports or offer one of their own. Could they have been unfamiliar with this busy traffic area? Possibly. Did they have me clearly in sight? Maybe. Maybe not. Most others would never have known that the aircraft was even there. And as it turned out, no harm, no foul. But is flying around without the knowledge of other nearby traffic what we’d prefer? Not me thanks!
It is indeed a big sky, but there are areas where aircraft converge that can make certain segments of sky seem significantly smaller. First and foremost, pilots should be sure to maintain a thorough and constant scan for traffic. Communication is also critical, both on local and en route frequencies. Flight following is another great tool if available and if able. Finally, the use of technology to aid in traffic detection should be at least considered. After all, an extra set of “eyes” in the cockpit is never a bad thing, is it?
Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. Determining a close call can be quite subjective but for our purposes here a close call will be any situation where a pilot suddenly realizes the presence of a nearby aircraft that they were otherwise unaware of.
The reason for Close Calls and my personal mission to become a very public collision avoidance advocate was a fatal mid-air collision a little over a year ago that occurred near my home airport. A busy corridor exists there where traffic returning from the practice area to the north crosses traffic in an area that places the intersecting traffic close to each other in distance and altitude in an effort to fly below the class C rings of nearby Pearson Airport in Toronto. Despite the traffic in the area relatively few VFR aircraft choose to communicate with ATC which would provide assistance with traffic detection and might even allow them to enter the class C – at least enough to ease some of the congestion in the area beneath the rings.
Why are so many VFR pilots averse to using flight following? This month in Close Calls I ask an air traffic controller. This Controller obtained their private pilots license before beginning a career in ATC. Learning to fly at an airport which is located underneath a major terminal airspace, they recall how intimidating ATC can appear from within the cockpit. Having spent several years working as a Terminal Controller, they continue to enjoy exercising the privileges of a private pilot’s license during their leisure time.
(Anthony) Is it bothersome for air traffic controllers when VFR pilots request flight following? (Controller) No, a simple request is not bothersome to Controllers. Our role as a service provider is to ensure the safe orderly and expeditious flow of traffic. Something important for pilots to understand is the importance of an ATC frequency. A Controllers most important function is to ensure that IFR separation is maintained. The only vehicle we have to issue instructions to ensure this separation - is our frequency.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as a VFR pilot who would like to request flight following is the importance of minimizing frequency congestion. We don’t expect every pilot who contacts us with a request to have impeccable phraseology, perfect radio etiquette or an in-depth understanding of what we do. There are however a few things I learned when I started in ATC that might be useful to remember.
When you’re going to call ATC, tune in the frequency and listen for a moment to ensure that you will not be interrupting an exchange between ATC and another aircraft. Once you are sure that the frequency is clear, interject with only your aircraft ident, and if you have already been assigned a discreet transponder code, include that as well (“Toronto Terminal, fox alfa bravo charlie squawking 5341”).
While we may not be speaking on the frequency when you call, we could be coordinating with another controller on a phone or hotline. When we are able to give your our attention we’ll let you know (“fox alfa bravo charlie, Toronto”). Now, please tell us a bit about your request (“Toronto, fox alfa bravo charlie is a Cessna 206, 12 miles north-east of Waterloo at 3,000, requesting flight following to Parry Sound”). It is important to ensure that there are no long pauses during your transmission. A good way to make sure you won’t have to pause during your transmission is, before calling, to ensure you’ve run through what you need to say in your mind.
Once we have this information, if we are able to provide the service we will let you know and ensure you’re correlated on our radar. If your flight path is going to take you through positive control airspace, such as Class C or D terminal areas, call early enough so that this exchange can be completed before you enter.
(Anthony) What do you want to say to pilots who feel intimidated by ATC?
(Controller) I wish there was a magic cure for this, or I could invite every pilot into a control facility to meet a Controller, but I can’t. What I can say is we’re human too. I remember how much I used to loath having to call terminal for fear I would make a mistake or otherwise embarrass myself. I used to find their stern matter of fact tone very intimidating. However, as Controllers we are taught to speak clearly, succinctly, and confidently to ensure pilots can understand us. While we may at times sound a little unfriendly, Controllers take great pride in their responsibility and work diligently to provide good service to our customers. Sometimes we are simply unable to provide VFR flight following because of the concentration of other IFR or VFR aircraft. Please don’t take that personally.
I would also suggest to those that find us intimidating to listen. Listen to ATC on a scanner when you’re not flying, or if you’re able to try to monitor ATC while you are flying. See what other pilots say and how they say it. I learned a lot as a pilot and a Controller listening to others work. In this way I was able to gain confidence. This confidence reduced how intimidating the system appeared to me. (Anthony) How can we encourage more pilots to make using flight following a good and safe habit?
(Controller) I think flight following is a wonderful tool. I use it regularly when flying cross country VFR. Using flight following ensures that ATC is aware of where I am and what I’m doing. It provides me with good information about what traffic is around me and could potentially conflict with my flight path. It ensures that if I need assistance someone is right there, knows where I am, and can be reached in an instant. I’m often provided with updates about special use airspace in the area. I also happen to find it interesting to listen to ATC, to see what’s going on around me and what conditions and reports other pilots are providing which might be useful to me.
While flight following is a super tool, it is important to remember its limitations. These weren’t all so obvious to me until I trained in ATC. First, as a VFR pilot, it is my responsibility to remain VFR… period. Controllers can’t see the clouds and rely on you to tell them when you need to descend or turn to remain VFR. Also, we must continue to maintain a good look-out for other traffic. ATC is unable to see everyone on radar, and sometimes other workload prevents them from passing all the traffic to our VFR customers.
Thanks Anthony for asking, it’s wonderful to have a venue to share our perspective.
(Anthony) I’d like to thank our controller for providing an opinion on flight following from the perspective of ATC. Once again I will continue to recommend that all pilots always maintain a good lookout, communicate diligently, consider acquiring PCAS, and get into the habit of using flight following.
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.”
Year in and year out the Garmin x96-series portable GPS has received top honors by aviation product reviewers. Garmin has proven that they are to GPS what Microsoft is to computer software – the industry’s 800-pound gorilla – and with good reason. Their most recent entry in the “handheld” aviation GPS market, the Garmin GPSmap 496, compares feature for feature with even their most expensive panel-mounted cousins, and in some cases goes beyond. Features include a crisp high-resolution display, obstacle and terrain alerting, XM weather data (by subscription, where available), a simulated instrument panel, and on and on.
Sure this is all well and good but why are we discussing this here and now? Big news, that’s why! The good folks at Garmin and Zaon Flight Systems have been working together closely for the past year to add yet another tremendous feature. With the use of an interface cable Zaon’s PCAS XRX now sends traffic information directly to Garmin GPSs.
How it essentially works is the XRX now gets used as an antenna and data processor while the traffic information itself gets displayed directly on your GPS (see photo). Traffic is shown in a rather “TCAS-like” way, with a symbol depicting the conflict aircraft as well as relative altitude information. As the threat intensifies a pop-up window appears in the bottom right corner of the GPS calling your attention to it in very much the same way the unit handles terrain and obstacle alerts.
Existing XRX owners may require that their units be reprogrammed to support the new feature. Fortunately, this update procedure is free and can be performed in Canada by SciDac Corporation / PCAS.ca (my company) thus expediting the process and eliminating the need for the unit to cross the border for the service. Recently ordered XRX units are being sold with the update already performed. The only other thing needed is the interface cable. A data cable exists from Garmin but Zaon has created a combo-cable designed to do-it-all and reduce clutter. This single cable will power the XRX as well as the Garmin 396 and 496 (the 296 does not support TIS data) and additionally provide the necessary data link between the devices. The cost of the cable is less than $100.
The XRX has interfaced with True Flight, Anywhere Map, and VistaNav for some time now (and support for NavAir and Air Gator is in the works and should be available soon) but the addition of Garmin is a landmark development that contributes significantly to the element of universality as it relates to data convergence in general aviation aircraft.
The future continues to hold advancements in the field of collision avoidance technology but this improvement is akin to the introduction of Windows 2000 after Windows NT! Oops, the techie geek in me slipped out again. Anyway, we’ll see you all next month when Close Calls returns with more of your stories.
This month’s Close Call comes from one of the many people I come across in cyberspace. There are many wonderful and informative aviation sites on the Internet. Many of them feature forums that allow you to obtain otherwise hard to find information and virtually chat with others sharing common interests. This story was shared with me on a forum and with the poster’s permission I’m sharing it with you exactly as posted.
“Some 18 years ago, I believe one of my student solo flights away from the circuit, I reported inbound. My transmission went something like this: "...tower, Alpha Bravo Charlie entering the zone from the west, one thousand five hundred, inbound for landing." The tower gave me the numbers, cleared me for left base and I replied. Shortly after my acknowledgment, I hear another radio call: "... tower, Delta Echo Foxtrot clearing the zone to the west at one thousand five hundred."
Interesting, I thought. Perhaps I should look out for that aircraft. We're both in Cessna 150s, so if we're head-on, it might be tough to see each other. As it turns out, it was all too easy to see each other. We were pretty dang close. I watched the other aircraft for a few fractions of a second to see if he was going to do something so I would know how to react. Nothing forthcoming. I decided I'd take action and, while watching the other guy very intently, I rolled my airplane to the left. At what I recall as seeming like the exact same moment, I noticed his aircraft rolling to his left as well. Good. We missed.
I thought about this while tying down my plane. What I did was wrong, under the aviation regulations regarding right of way. Both of us should have altered course to the right, not the left. Funny. If either of us did what we were supposed to do, we'd probably both be dead right now. I still don't know to this day if the other fellow saw me, but I firmly believe it would have been hard to miss me, based on how close we were. Chalk that one up to dumb luck between a pair of idiots, I suppose... “
Anthony here again. While this scenario ended up the way we prefer it is important to remember to comply with aviation regulations as they pertain to right of way. It is the universal understanding and application of these rules that make our actions relatively predictable. This is the key to a last-second evasive maneuver saving us rather than dooming us. It may have been possible that in this case pilot A observed pilot B alter course to the left and within a split-second instinctively did the same to avoid a collision. That’s quick thinking and great reflexes. Overall luck was on the side of both pilots that day a while back. That always helps a little too.
As a tyke I remember converting a refrigerator box into a jet plane. I’d cut out holes for the cockpit windows and draw in all sorts of mysterious dials and buttons. Dreaming. In my teens on my first summer job at (then) Toronto International Airport I would spend lunch breaks gazing over the vast airfield from atop the terminal 1 parking garage. Again, dreaming.
Surely, the younger me wasn’t the only such kid with these dreams. I’m quite sure many of you have had similar ones. Some of us might have been lucky enough to know a pilot but in most cases, like mine, dreaming is as good as it gets.
In 1992 the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) launched the Young Eagles program. Its mandate was to give kids aged 8-17 the chance of a lifetime – the chance to experience the thrill of aviation first hand in a GA aircraft. And since then a whopping 1.3 million kids worldwide have experienced that thrill in over 90 countries thanks to the generosity of nearly 40,000 volunteer pilots. In Canada, more than 100,000 Young Eagles have been flown by Canadian pilots participating through COPA’s partnership with the EAA.
For many Young Eagles their short flight in that little plane fulfilled a dream. For many others it started a new one. Some former Young Eagles are even working in aviation today. At the very least (as is the case with one of my first Young Eagles), that short flight might have been just enough to show a youngster that anything is possible. That trying a little harder is always worth it. That taking the easy way isn’t necessarily the most rewarding way. That you can live your dream!
As if we needed more reasons to fly
We all know that feeling of joy we get when we see the look of wonderment on the faces of our young passengers as the plane first lifts off from the ground. “Wow!” we hear over the intercom. We take a few minutes to explain the basics of attitudes and movements then begin to demonstrate how those movements change the indications on our instruments. “So that’s what all these things are for!” Some time later (and never long enough) we’re back in the circuit. A little while after that we’re back at the ramp. We disembark our newest Young Eagle whose smile stretches from ear to ear. “Thanks a lot! That was amazing!” This newest entrant in the EAA’s “World’s Largest Logbook” sure has an adventure to share with their friends, and share it they will – you can count on it.
A thrill for the kids? Absolutely. But what about for us? It’s hard to describe the warm sense of pride. Being the one to have provided that thrill. And in such an uncommon and unique way. It feels like flying should feel. It feels like being a kid again. It just feels… right.
We all benefit
By holding and promoting Young Eagles events we can give something to the neighbours of our airports. Since the flights are free of charge Young Eagles events are a great way to draw nearby families to the airport. In many cases this will be their first visit to their local GA airport. In addition to sharing the excitement of flight we now have the opportunity to introduce them to the great people of our GA community, offer facility tours, and demonstrate just how important and valuable GA airports are to our cities.
The size of a Young Eagles event – the number of kids that can be flown – is really only limited by the number of volunteer pilots and planes available. Owners can register with the EAA and make themselves and their planes available for some or all of the event. Non-owners can use rental aircraft for their Young Eagles flights.
International Young Eagles Day - Saturday June 9th, 2007
Several events will be held on International Young Eagles Day this June 9th. In the Greater Toronto Area, independent but cooperative events are being held at three sites: In the west end, at the Brampton Flying Club (CNC3), in the east end at the Oshawa Airport (CYOO), and to the north at Buttonville Airport (CYKZ). These event are being co-promoted by Hope Air to help raise awareness of the other kinds of good work routinely performed by GA pilots.
Hope Air is a registered charity dedicated to providing free flights for Canadians who need to travel outside their home communities for medical treatment. Founded in 1986, Hope Air has since provided more than 52,000 free flights for Canadians.
COPA endorses and supports the Young Eagles program and encourages COPA members to participate individually or through the many COPA Flights or dedicated Young Eagles events across the country. Contact your local GA airport to see if they’re holding an event and how you can help. Volunteers are always needed for administration, ground support, ramp escorts, etc. Corporate sponsorship and a show of support from municipal, provincial, and federal government leaders are welcomed and encouraged. For more information visit the EAA’s Young Eagles website at www.youngeagles.org