I hate to use a click-bait headline like that, but the recent news of yet another GA mid-air collision has me angry. Last summer a Cessna 150 and an F-16 collided near Monck’s Corner, South Carolina, killing the pilot and passenger in the Cessna. Two weeks ago a Cessna Caravan and a Piper cub collided in Alaska. Last week another mid-air, this time in Georgia, left three dead. Mid-air collisions are relatively rare but invariably draw the attention and condemnation of the press – something GA definitely does not need.
The recent spate of articles made much of the fact that these accidents occurred at or near “uncontrolled” airports. As pilots we all understand that “uncontrolled” does not mean “out-of-control” or “free-for-all.” The traffic rules and standard practices usually make operation at an uncontrolled airport quite safe. The general public does not understand this. Perhaps more than any other type of accident, mid-air collisions instill a fear of general aviation in the minds of the non-flying electorate. Two pilots failed to maintain visual separation. Two planes were destroyed. Multiple lives were lost. It’s not a pretty picture.
Sadly, many (most?) of these accidents could be avoided with an inexpensive traffic receiver and a comprehensive feed of local traffic. The FAA has the data. ATC radar installations all across the country collect, digitize, and forward a constant stream of real-time traffic. The information is passed to ADS-B ground towers which uplink it as TIS-B (traffic information service – broadcast). This sounds like a potential solution to the problem and it is – if your aircraft is equipped with ADS-B Out. If not, you get either a partial picture (if someone nearby has ADS-B Out) or nothing at all.
This is wrong. It verges on criminal. The FAA’s mandate is aviation safety. The only reason they exist is to make aviation safer. So why don’t they simply broadcast a comprehensive stream of traffic data? Because their current policy is to use TIS-B as a bonus or “carrot” for those who chose to equip with ADS-B Out before the 2020 deadline. This policy may very well be killing pilots, passengers, and bystanders.
I don’t know if any of the pilots involved in the recent mid-airs were using an EFB application, but given how pervasive they have become it is entirely possible. Had any of them been receiving traffic updates it is possible – even likely – that they would have detected and avoided the other aircraft. Yes, they may have been too low to have been receiving ADS-B. Yes, they may have been too low to be visible to any ATC radar. However, in the F-16/C-150 crash, both aircraft were visible to ATC and within 21 nautical miles of an ADS-B ground station making it very likely that they would have had coverage.
The change is apparently not simply a matter of flipping a switch. Originally there was some concern that the amount of data involved in comprehensive traffic broadcast could overwhelm the ADS-B network, compromising safety. According to a source at AOPA, research by an FAA / industry task force debunked this concern. The group reviewed the technical challenges involved and found that uplinking all traffic visible to ATC would not overload the available bandwidth, nor would it place an impossible burden on the towers or the network infrastructure that connects them. The change would require software be revised to provide coverage zones for the towers rather than coverage “pucks” for client aircraft.
If you happen to belong to any of the “alphabet” organizations – AOPA, EAA, NBAA, etc. – please contact their advocacy team and demand that they make opening TIS-B a priority. There is no reason for mid-air collisions to happen in 2016.
EAA – Sean Elliott – VP of Advocacy & Safety: Email Now
AOPA – Jim Coon – Senior VP of Government Affairs and Advocacy: Email Now
NBAA – Dick Doubrava – Vice President, Government Affairs: Email Now
NBAA – Christa Fornarotto – Vice President, Government Affairs: Email Now