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Business Aviators Look to Avoid Mid-Air Collisions

There are numerous operational, environmental and human factors that come together to expose gaps in the flawed “see and avoid” aviation collision avoidance concept, which was originally designed to  keep sea vessels away from each other.  Given the known limitations of the human eye and the perceptual systems that detect another aircraft’s motion on a converging course, it is no surprise that an average of 15.6 mid-air collisions continue to occur each year. 

And, due to under-reporting, we truly don’t know how many near-mid-air collisions have occurred, nor do we know how many pilots simply didn’t see each other even though their aircraft were perilously close to bending metal. 

Business aviation often operates in airspace that is often full with general aviation aircraft, because they regularly operate in and out of satellite airports that serve a wide variety of general aviation, including flight schools, charter operations and aerial tours.  The traffic patterns at these satellite airports can be hectic, and all of this traffic is compressed under the adjacent Class B airspace.  The flight traffic mix can include everything from Stearmans giving aerial tours to student pilots practicing touch-and-goes and Robison R-22s simultaneously practicing autorotations, all in the same traffic pattern.  

The workload of fast-flying business aircraft on departures and arrivals is significant.  Just think of all that’s involved in landing an aircraft: performing the descent checklist; actively managing the energy of the aircraft to prevent arriving at the final approach fix too high and/or too fast; double-checking entries into the FMS to assure they would comply with the altitude and speed constraints on the arrival procedure; properly complying with ATC-amended altitudes by following the altitude awareness procedures (requiring both pilots to cross check and confirm with each other); making certain that aircraft systems are properly configured for landing; informing the flight attendant and passengers of imminent landing and to fasten their seat belts; contacting the FBO or ramp for gate instructions; listening to the ATIS to get the latest weather information; double-checking that the assumptions made in their Landing Performance Assessment were still valid; and listening to the ATC frequency to maintain their situational awareness on other aircraft or other flight crews reporting potentially dangerous wind shear. 

In addition, these workloads coincide with passing through airspace with the highest congestion of other aircraft.

Can the cockpit workload detract from the amount of time that flight crews spend on outside visual scanning?  Most definitely.   A research study of automated flight deck crews co-sponsored by the NASA Human Factors Division at Ames Research Center, United Airlines and the Airline Pilots Association found that the normal cockpit duties during approach resulted in flight crews detecting another aircraft on a converging course less than 30 percent of the time.  This detection rate plummets to nearly zero when flight crews are given a late-minute change of runway instructions and/or report of a meteorological change that required their attention.  It is entirely possible for even the most attentive flight crew of a business aircraft performing their duties to experience a mid-air under these factors.