Midair Collision – No Excuse
FAA Order 7110.65, better known as the “Point 65,” sets forth the procedures and phraseology for use by air traffic controllers. Right up front, this order makes clear that “[t]he primary purpose of the ATC system is to prevent a collision involving aircraft operating in the system.” Pretty hard to get around that one when a midair collision occurs. If your very existence is premised on keeping aircraft from running into one another, and they do, well, you get the point.
On Friday, October 1, 2021, a Piper Archer airplane and a Robinson R22 helicopter collided in the traffic pattern at Chandler Municipal Airport in Arizona. While the Piper was able to land safely, tragically, the instructor and student in the R22 perished. Chandler has an air traffic control tower, but it’s not operated by the FAA. The tower at Chandler is one of more than 250 “contract towers” operated under national contracts awarded to Midwest Air Traffic Control Services, Serco Management Services Inc., and Robinson Aviation (RVA) Inc. Regardless, the same rules apply. In this case, the weather was VFR (visual flight rules), which begs the question, how is it possible for two aircraft to collide while flying in the traffic pattern at a controlled airport in visual conditions? Unfortunately, many people (pilots included) think air traffic controllers are using radar to keep VFR airplanes “separated” at airports like Chandler. Not so. While tower controllers may have a radar display available, when the weather is VFR, they will generally be looking out the window and using their eyes (possibly aided by binoculars) to provide proper sequencing/spacing to arriving pilots. Sounds archaic, and it is. What’s more, there is no separation criteria like that when aircraft are operating under instrument flight rules (IFR). So, at a busy airport, with a lot of flight training, is it really surprising to see two aircraft vying for the same airspace while talking to air traffic control? Another question is whether the Piper and/or the R22 had ADS-B “traffic” information available in the cockpit. Either way, there is still no excuse for allowing two aircraft to run into one another.
Alan D. Mattioni
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