Learn­ing the lim­its of see-and-avoid


Flying - - Contents - By David Fran­cis

They say a pilot never stops learn­ing. But that’s not true. Com­pla­cency can set in right around the time we’ve for­got­ten what flam­ing toma­toes have to do with fly­ing air­planes. We re­al­ize that most flights go just fine, and with­out a healthy spook now and then, we reach a learn­ing plateau. My first spook hit me on a bright spring day over sub­ur­ban Phoenix.

There are two cer­tain­ties about bright spring days in that airspace. It’s warm, and it’s crowded. Com­bine sev­eral large flight schools train­ing for­eign air­line cadets with a Class B in­ter­na­tional air­port and you’ll learn the lim­i­ta­tions of see-and-avoid.

De­part­ing Falcon Field (KFFZ) en route to Yuma, Ari­zona (KNYL), I opted to squirm out from un­der the Phoenix Class B airspace by head­ing south-southwest over Chan­dler (KCHD). That route en­ables VFR pilots to es­cape the area by slid­ing be­tween a lower shelf of the Class B and the Phoenix-mesa Gate­way (KIWA) airspace. It can get busy. Es­pe­cially over Chan­dler, where avoid­ing tow­ered airspace means ex­it­ing and en­ter­ing the cor­ri­dor be­tween 3,000 and 4,000 feet msl. At its nar­row­est, the cor­ri­dor is a thou­sand feet tall and a cou­ple of miles wide.

Not long after I checked in with Phoenix Ap­proach, the con­troller called out traf­fic at my 2 o’clock, same alti­tude. Fo­cus­ing my scan in that di­rec­tion, I saw noth­ing and re­ported “look­ing.” The pilot of the other air­plane was not on the fre­quency. Mo­ments passed. An­other call-out from the con­troller. Still look­ing, more ur­gently. Still noth­ing spot­ted.

As I con­sid­ered how to al­ter course for the in­vis­i­ble air­plane, us­ing proper right-of-way pro­ce­dures, I had a worry that we were con­verg­ing. Then came

the com­mand from ap­proach, firmly: “Climb im­me­di­ately.” Hav­ing read too many re­ports of midair col­li­sions over our lo­cal airspace, my fo­cus nar­rowed. Now, it was pri­mal. Throt­tle in, yoke back. Oddly enough, as the hori­zon fell, the choice be­tween Vx and Vy crossed my mind. A ridicu­lous thought, given the cir­cum­stances. I laughed to my­self, if only for a mil­lisec­ond. Back in re­al­ity, I kept pulling un­til what seemed like a 45-de­gree climb but must’ve been less. Re­al­ity again: I was about to pierce the floor of the Phoenix Class B airspace. I wasn’t far be­neath it to be­gin with. “I’m gonna bust the Bravo. Is that OK?” I was cleared into the Class B be­fore my mouth was shut.

Nose down quickly to main­tain Vx, and then it was all over. The con­troller let me know I was clear of the traf­fic, and I de­scended out of the Class B and went on my way. The drone of the en­gine gave way to re­flec­tion within my stu­pe­fied mind as I as­sessed how close I had come to real dan­ger. It was stun­ning to think that only a few sec­onds ear­lier I’d been forced to blindly ex­pose the belly of my air­plane to an un­known threat. I never saw the other air­plane, and even if the worst had hap­pened I prob­a­bly never would have seen it. Shock gave way to anger. Why would an­other pilot blow through a busy VFR cor­ri­dor with­out tak­ing ad­van­tage of the ser­vices our great lo­cal ap­proach controllers of­fer? I did ev­ery­thing right. Some­one else screwed up and scared me. How dare they!

Lessons learned? I sup­pose. Maybe I’m not all that per­fect. Maybe I could’ve flown through the pos­i­tive-con­trol Class D airspace be­low, where any threat­en­ing traf­fic would at least be on the tower fre­quency with me. There could’ve been a good rea­son why the other pilot wasn’t us­ing flight fol­low­ing.

Hon­estly, though? What I did was not only per­fectly le­gal, but rea­son­able un­der the cir­cum­stances. I chose the route that would al­low the high­est le­gal alti­tude for my route of flight, just un­der the Class B. Fly­ing lower would’ve posed its own, dif­fer­ent risks, and I would’ve cursed my­self had I run into en­gine trou­ble in a sin­gle-en­gine air­plane at need­lessly low alti­tude over an un­for­giv­ing ex­panse of sub­di­vi­sions and strip malls.

Most pilots have had at least one close brush with traf­fic, and the real les­son I learned is less about traf­fic avoid­ance than about the na­ture of fly­ing it­self. I learned that same les­son at 10,500 feet over the vast, in­dis­tin­guish­able ex­panse of western Texas when my tablet’s GPS feed cut out. I used the spar­ingly equipped Chero­kee’s sole VOR re­ceiver to tri­an­gu­late a po­si­tion rel­a­tive to the Big Spring and Mid­land VORS, and a sheep­ish re­quest for a vec­tor to An­drews con­firmed that I was still on course. No big deal in the end, but the sen­sa­tion of feel­ing “lost,” if only for a mo­ment, made an im­pres­sion.

The les­son learned over Chan­dler and again over Texas, I think, is that even if a pilot does ab­so­lutely noth­ing wrong, some threat, even if mi­nor, is lurk­ing out there. No pilot will com­pletely elim­i­nate the risk in­her­ent in rid­ing man-made alu­minum (or com­pos­ite) con­trap­tions through the air. That beast sim­ply can­not be tamed.

Phrased dif­fer­ently, the les­son is sim­ply to ap­pre­ci­ate fly­ing for what it is. It is the mar­riage of beauty and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and the vul­ner­a­bil­ity has its own al­lure. Not be­cause of some reck­less dare­devil men­tal­ity, but be­cause the goal of a flight well and safely flown, ev­ery­thing “done right,” can so pre­oc­cupy the mind that it shuts out ev­ery­thing else. The stres­sors of ev­ery­day life seem — and ac­tu­ally be­come, if only for the mo­ment — friv­o­lous.

The plateau is crossed, and it’s back up the learn­ing curve again. It’s the same curve tra­versed by child­hood idols such as Richard Collins, Peter Gar­ri­son and ev­ery other pilot who typ­i­fies “pro­fes­sional” avi­a­tion even if their pay­check doesn’t come from an air­line or cor­po­rate flight depart­ment.

I’m ex­cited to fol­low them up that curve. Bring it on.


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