Warren Le Grice
Mid Air Collisions
A mid-air collision is probably a pilot’s worst nightmare, and is the main reason that air traffic
control exists. Mid-airs are the result of a loss of situational awareness on the part of one, or both of the pilots involved. These accidents are often preceded by either a breakdown in
communication or a total absence of it.
I will relate two of my own near-miss experiences, in this article, and discuss two fatal
accidents in which I knew the pilots involved.
The first close call that I experienced, was at Penticton in the spring of 1969. I was flying a Champion Tri-Traveller with my younger brother as my back seat passenger. We had just landed CF-XNE on runway 34. I needed to taxi back to the Penticton Flying Club hangar where the airplane was tied down, so we moved over to the left side of the runway and I did a 180 degree turn to taxi back towards the runway threshold.
Now in 1969 there was no such thing as a MF (Mandatory Frequency). That would come as a result of the PWA crash at Cranbrook 1989. Pentiction Aeradio, where I worked at the time, provided an airport advisory service on 122.2 mhz. I had called in and announced my intentions and received the airport advisory, I did not hear any other aircraft on the frequency. We at the Aeradio Station, were well aware of a mid-air collision that had occurred in April of 1963, when eight people were killed in a mid-air between an Aero Commander Twin, and a Cessna 140 over Skaha Lake, while both aircraft were on approach to runway 34.
As I taxied towards the threshold of runway 34, I noticed a Stinson Voyager about a mile final, and above him and slightly behind, was a Cherokee, which was owned by the same flying school as the airplane I was flying. I said to my brother “look at those guys on final”. As the Stinson was starting to round out for its landing, the Cherokee’s right gear leg contacted the Stinson’s starboard wing, and I noticed bits of fabric being torn off and the Stinson contacted the pavement quite firmly. The Stinson pilot was able to maintain control of his machine and continued to taxi straight ahead. The Cherokee pilot, who as it turned out, was a student pilot on his first solo, then turned to the left and added power in order to do a go around. This action took him on a heading towards our airplane. I turned right towards the VASIS lights located on the grass, left of the runway, to avoid being hit.
The student pilot then banked right and climbed away and did another successful circuit and landed with a bent right undercarriage. The Stinson had major damage to the right wing and the pilot luckily was not injured. It was a classic high-wing, low-wing situation, compounded by the fact that nether pilot was aware of the other aircraft, as there was no radio communication. I believe the student pilot never came back for any more lessons, both aircraft would be written off in later years and the flying school crashed themselves out of business within two years.
Incident # 2
Approximately ten years later, I was now a Terminal Controller at the VR ACC. I was flying my Arrow CF-UKE, the aircraft I mentioned in a previous article. I was giving instrument dual to my friend Rick Quiring, who had been my OJI ( On Job Instructor) in Terminal. We had filed IFR and were going to Victoria to do and ILS on runway 26 ( the movement of the magnetic north pole, would necessitate renumbering the runway several years later), then a missed approach back to Vancouver, where we kept the machine. It was a summer evening and the weather at Victoria was about 1800 feet broken and 20 miles visibility, very stable air and no precipitation.
We had flown the transition from the Victoria VOR over to the Victoria NDB which was at that time located on Sidney Island, about 4 miles on final for RWY 26. We received our approach clearance from Vancouver Terminal. Just prior to procedure turn, we were changed over to YJ tower, and on initial contact with the Tower there was no mention made of any other aircraft. As we were intercepting the localizer inbound, we broke out at the bottom of cloud base. The next thing I saw were three bright lights climbing up towards us.
I took the controls from Rick said “ I have control” and we did a right descending turn. Once we got sorted out again and back the ILS, I told the Tower we had just passed a jet going the opposite direction. The tower had departed the aircraft on runway 08, unbelievable! The reply I got was “ Oh, he is VFR going for an approach”. I replied that the aircraft which turned out to be a British Midlands 737 couldn’t have been VFR as we were IMC during procedure turn. Very dangerous behaviour on the part of the tower controller and of the pilot of the 737. You cannot make this kind of stuff up!
Had we not broken clear of cloud when we did, we would have collided for sure. Now days that type of incident would have resulted in a TSB investigation and action by Transport Canada. There were three of us on board that evening, as we also had another VR Terminal controller with us, so had the 737 got us, it would have taken out about 15% of the VR Terminal staff in one fell swoop.
Incident # 3
The mid-air collision which occurred on November 20, 1999, in CYA125(T) is well documented as report # A99P0168 by the TSB. The mid-air involved a C152 operated by Pacific Flying Club and a privately owned Aircoupe owned and flown by one of my two friends Alvin and Stan out of Langley. Alvin was an instructor at BCIT in Burnaby, and Stan was a retired CP Air engineer. The C152 had a young instructor on board and a 15 year student pilot who was working on his recreational license.
CYA125(T) was a Class F special use airspace, located over Surrey, and the north portion of that airspace infringed on the localizer for runway 26 at Vancouver. It was capped at 2000 feet, which meant as terminal controllers we couldn’t come below 2500 feet with light and medium weight IFR aircraft, and 3000 feet for heavy jets. This certainly affected operations when Rwy 26 was active at Vancouver. The airspace was a bit of a nuisance from an IFR perspective, and we used to comment on the number of aircraft, that we observed, jammed into that airspace on a good VFR day. It really was an accident waiting to happen.
I remember the day of the accident well. It occurred late in afternoon on a November weekend. It was the first day of reasonable weather, following a dismal week, of almost constant rain. The weather improvement created an opportunity for many pilots to finally go flying. Transport Canada was aware of the elevated risk, that CYA125 posed to VFR aircraft. Numerous flying training aircraft, were squeezed into only really 1500 feet of vertical airspace. Following the accident, in which all four persons were killed, Transport Canada eliminated the special use airspace, and PFC installed flashing landing lights on all their aircraft.
Incident # 4
The last accident occurred over Nairn Falls Provincial Park, four miles SW of the Pemberton Airport on June 29, 2013. The aircraft involved were a Stemme S10 motor glider and a C150. The motor glider was being flown by a friend of mine Rudy, who was my one of my instructors, when I was flying gliders at Pemberton, a number of years ago. Rudy was operating his motor glider operating scenic flights on the day of the accident. Rudy was an experienced glider and powered aircraft pilot, with over 3,000 hrs of flight time.
Weather permitting, the scenic flights involved taking passengers, one at a time, out west of the airport and over the Ipsoot Glacier, to an altitude of 8400 feet, a really spectacular flight. The engine would be shut down at altitude and the propeller stowed and the aircraft would become a sailplane for the descent and landing.
Rudy’s business, Pemberton Soaring, was a real grass roots operation, he slowly built up his glider fleet from one Blanik L33 and a Bellanca Scout towplane, into several sailplanes. Over the few years, rental pilots and one of his own tow pilots wrote-off most of his aircraft, to the point where he was only operating the Stemme motor glider.
A sailplane requires rising air, in order that the flight become anything other than a sled ride. In the Pemberton area, that would require flying relatively close to terrain, in search of rising boundary layer air. Rudy would likely have been using that method on his descent to the airport. As he rounded the mountain side above the Nairn Falls Park, he encountered opposite direction traffic.
The Cessna 150 which was on a VFR flight plan, from Lillooet to Nanaimo had on board a man, his wife and their dog. The pilot had a Private License and 127 hours of flight time. There is an ATF frequency at Pemberton on 123.2 mhz. Rudy had made a radio call inbound to the field, which was heard by witness, but the witness did not recall hearing the Cessna pilot make any transmissions.
The sailplane when viewed head on, would have presented a very small profile to the C150 pilot. The long nose of the sailplane, combined with the view from the semi reclining seats in the sailplane, would have made it difficult to see the Cessna below. Both pilots likely thought they had the sky to themselves. The collision resulted in both aircraft shedding a wing each and the wreckage spiralling down amongst people in the campsite below. None of the four people in the two aircraft, survived the accident.
Back at the airport, the other two members of the family of the young boy, who was the passenger in the motor glider, were waiting for their turn at a scenic flight.
Rudy left a wife and two teenage sons. There is plaque located in the picnic grounds on the Pemberton Airport, which was placed in honour of Rudy.
Mid-air collisions remain a very threat, however we can mitigate risk by a number of means.
- Effective communication is essential, ensuring you are on the correct frequency, particularly at uncontrolled airports.
- When flying cross country, get into the ATC system as soon as possible, you can do so by requesting flight following, and getting the benefit of radar traffic.
- Keep your eyes outside as much as possible in VMC, and don’t get distracted by Ipads and such. Avoid non-essential conversations. Sterile cockpits exist for a reason.
- Just because you don’t hear other traffic on the frequency and don’t see anyone, doesn’t mean you are all alone out there. Be aware of special use airspace.
Fly professionally and make good decisions.