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Midair

H. Dean Chamberlain
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

In September 2006, while working at the Reno (Nevada) National Championship Air Races, I was told about the midair collision between a glider and a business jet. It occurred in the greater Reno area about 10 miles west-northwest of Smith, Nevada the month before. As a rated glider pilot, I was immediately interested in finding out the details of the accident. I talked with the FAA aviation safety inspectors from the Reno Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), who were working at and monitoring the air races. I also met and discussed the accident with Marvin Rogge of Rogge Insurance Services Aviation, Las Vegas, Nevada. He is an independent insurance adjuster who worked on behalf of the insurance company that insured the glider involved in the accident. Later, I drove to the Carson City, Nevada, airport to look at the damaged business jet, a Hawker 800 XP. Although I had seen Rogge’s photographs of the damaged jet on the runway after its gear up landing, as well as those on the Internet, the aircraft I saw in a Carson City hangar was sitting on its gear with all of its damaged airframe areas covered with black plastic sheeting and tape. Photographs of the damaged jet were widely displayed on the Internet at the time of the accident including the damaged cockpit with the glider wing spare protruding through the jet’s instrument panel.

In writing this article I reviewed the two National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) accident reports listed on the NTSB’s Aviation Internet site. The reports, Preliminary Report Aviation NTSB ID LAX06FA277A and NTSB ID LAX06FA277B, for each aircraft involved in the accident describe what happened, list statements of the pilots involved, report damages to each aircraft, and provide a weather condition report for the time of the accident. The two reports are available for review on the NTSB Internet site at <www.ntsb.gov>. Because both reports are preliminary reports, each is subject to change.

To sum up the August 28, 2006, accident, at 1506 Pacific daylight time, the glider was destroyed in the midair accident and the severely damaged Hawker later landed gear up in Carson City, Nevada. Fortunately, everyone onboard both aircraft survived. I heard several differing accounts of how the Japanese glider pilot survived the initial impact that destroyed the glider’s right wing. The glider’s wing spar then penetrated the jet’s nose cone and cockpit. What I thought amazing was how the glider pilot was able to extract himself from the mortally wounded glider that was in a flat spin and parachute to safety. Since not every glider pilot wears a parachute—Federal regulations don’t require a glider pilot to wear a parachute—the fact the pilot not only wore parachute, but was able to exit the glider and get a good canopy and land without major injury in the mountains, give what I think is new meaning to “always be prepared.”

Based upon various unofficial reports and the NTSB preliminary report—remember the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) final report is the only official source—the accident apparently occurred as the jet was descending into the Reno area on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan from Carlsbad, California, to Reno. At the same time, the glider was soaring in the Pine Nut Mountains east of the Carson City/Minden area on a personal flight without a flight plan. The glider was not required to have a flight plan. Minden is a world famous soaring area south of Carson City, the Nevada state capital, and Reno. According to the NTSB report, the glider pilot reported he had not flown in the Minden area since 2000. On the day of the accident, he received a flight review in a DG-505 the morning of the accident and then flew his first flight in the accident glider. He started his second flight in the glider at 1300 with the intent to fly about five hours in the glider. According to the NTSB report, the glider entered a thermal [Editor’s note: A rising column of air that permits a glider to climb.] on the southwest side of Mount Seagul. The glider was in a 30-degree left bank spiraling climb at 50 knots. While in the climb, the glider pilot saw the jet coming toward him. According to the report, the glider pilot “…estimated that one second passed between the time he noted the jet aircraft and the time they collided. He said he may have entered a slight nose down control input, but it wasn’t enough to avoid the collision.”

The midair occurred at approximately 16,000 feet as the jet was descending into the terminal area in preparation for landing at Reno. As I understand the details of the accident, there was some question about what the jet hit on its descent. But based upon the air traffic radar tapes, the time of the accident and the altitude when the jet’s position changed, air traffic controllers and rescue forces were able to determine a starting point for searching for the missing glider and its pilot. In time, the glider pilot was found walking out the mountains. However, it is my understanding that it took some time before a search was initiated because the glider was being flown without a flight plan.

As we await NTSB’s official accident report, I want to add my personal thoughts on this accident because it highlights what I think are several important, although highly controversial, safety issues within the glider/soaring community.

To paraphrase Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) section 91.113(b) Right-of-way rules: Except water operations, when weather conditions permit, all pilots have a responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft. Although all pilots are taught this rule, in my opinion, aircraft cockpit design; condition or status of flight; pilot work load; aircraft size; whether flying straight and level or maneuvering; or climbing or descending; type of flight plan, if any; and whether you are talking to air traffic control or not at all; or if the pilot is heads down programming the latest GPS super tech box, all of these or any combination can contribute to a pilot’s lack of situational awareness and ability to comply with the above regulation. In this case, I think the relative speed differential between a climbing glider in a 30-degree turn at 50 knots and a descending turbojet may have been a contributing factor. Although both pilots had a regulatory requirement to see and avoid the other, in some situations, by the time you become aware of the danger; it may be too late to avoid it. Although a glider, by regulatory definition has right-of-way over an airplane, 14 CFR section 91.113, and Right-of-way rules: Except water operations, this fact did not prevent this accident. According to the NTSB report, the Hawker’s captain reported, “…they were cleared to descend and as she looked outside she noted something out of the left corner of her eye to the left. As she looked to the left, she noted a glider filling the windshield. She moved the control yoke down and to the right in an attempt to avoid the glider, but to no avail.”

What might have prevented this accident?

The following is a very controversial personal opinion; however, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring it up. I was told the glider had a transponder installed, but that it was not turned on. The NTSB notes this fact. Discussions with other glider pilots about the accident provided a possible explanation about why the transponder was turned off: It might drain the glider’s battery. Some gliders have small battery packs installed to energize some instruments and flight items, such as radios or GPS units. Such packs have a limited amount of charge and functional usage. Many of these battery packs use rechargeable batteries. In this accident, the NTSB report stated that, “According to the glider pilot, he did not turn on the transponder because he was only intending on remaining in the local glider area, and because he wanted to reserve his batteries for radio use.” Although the glider had two battery packs, the pilot reported he was unsure of the remaining charge because of the previous glider flights.

The reason transponder usage is a controversial issue within the glider community is that the FAA’s regulations do not require transponders in aircraft which were not originally certificated with an engine-driven electrical system or which has not subsequently been certificated with such a system installed. Because of the certification issue, certain gliders are exempt from the transponder carriage requirement of 14 CFR section 91.215, ATC transponder and altitude reporting equipment and use. What makes this accident interesting is the requirement in the rule that says in part that each person operating an aircraft equipped with an operable ATC transponder maintained in accordance with section 91.413 of this part shall operate the transponder…. So the question in my mind is: Since the glider had a transponder installed—I don’t know its maintenance status—does the rule require it to be operating? I think this question may have to be decided by attorneys at some point in the future.

Could an operating transponder have prevented this midair collision? I don’t know. But if I was in a glider with an operable transponder, I would rather have it turned on and operating than not. I think anything that might prevent an accident is better than nothing. Is a transponder foolproof? No, but both air traffic control and many aircraft can detect transponder signals. The Hawker was equipped with a TCAS warning system which can detect a transponder signal. I want the world to know I am there. But there are many people in aviation who are opposed to any regulatory change that requires new equipment. Some people are just opposed to any rule change, others oppose change because of the resulting equipment cost, and some feel that having to add extra items to their aircraft may restrict performance. Some, I think, also believe in the big sky-small aircraft theory, which equates into “it can’t happen to me.” This accident proves the sky is not as big as it once was, and it is getting smaller every year. With the development of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-B (ADS-B), system, there may come a time when everything that gets off the ground will have to have some type of transponder onboard to be visible to air traffic control. But that is another story.

So what other personal comments did I hear or think about this accident?

First, I think both the glider pilot and the jet crew did a fantastic job after the accident. I think the glider pilot’s presence of mind to be able to get out of the glider and successfully operate his parachute and make a safe subsequent landing was great. After looking at the photographs of the damaged jet, I still can’t believe the flight crew was able to successfully control and land the aircraft. The fact the crew avoided serious injury is amazing. The plane’s captain suffered a facial cut, and she was transported to a facility for medical treatment.

I think this accident reminds all of us of the need for constant vigilance while flying. Although I believe in transponders, we can’t become dependent upon air traffic control or our onboard detection systems to warn us of all nearby traffic. An aircraft may not be required to have a transponder onboard or it may be inoperative. So we have a constant need to see and avoid other aircraft when conditions permit. The same need applies to radios: Listening to air traffic control departure or arrival frequencies can give every pilot an idea of controlled traffic in the immediate area and what that traffic may be doing.

I also think it is important for pilots to know where there may be high levels of unique aviation activity—such as glider operations, parachuting, ultra light flight or even high levels of basic student training—and to be more aware of the need to see and avoid what may be much smaller aircraft or even skydivers in free fall or under canopy. VFR sectional charts and the Airport/Facility Directory appropriate for the area are good starting points in your preflight planning search. All of these aviation activities can be found at differing altitudes. Gliders, for example, particularly in the Minden and other mountainous areas, can be found above 18,000 plus feet altitudes when mountain wave conditions exist. Many parachutists routinely start more than 12,000 feet high to maximize their free fall time.

One interesting comment I heard in Reno concerned the glider pilot’s decision to start walking away from the crash site after waiting one and a half hours after the crash. He had walked more than two hours towards Carson Valley before being picked up by local authorities. Although the traditional wisdom says to remain with the aircraft because it is easier for rescuers to find an aircraft than an individual, at times it may be best to walk to safety. Rogge believes that glider pilot knew the area in which he was flying and knew which direction to seek help. According to an e-mail message FAA Aviation News received from Rogge, he said, “The terrain was not severe either, as the recovery vehicles drove almost to the site.”

Since each situation is different, I won’t try and second guess this pilot’s decision to walk out. But, some of the FAA aviation safety inspectors I talked with pointed out an important safety item concerning their remote areas around the Reno area. They said the pilot could have walked in the wrong direction for days without ever finding help. The inspectors made a point that pilots should pay attention to where help can be found as they fly along. I think this can be summed up as not only maintaining situational awareness in flight, but also along the ground.

In the chaos following an accident, I think knowing where you are and taking the time to make the best decisions possible under the circumstance may become critical in life or death situations. It helps if you have a compass, a current flight chart, and a survival kit. Your ability to use them may make the difference between surviving or not. As the person I purchased my parachute from notes in his sales material, if you have to use your parachute, you are only going to take with you what is attached to your parachute. He then offers for sale a small basic survival kit that attaches to the webbing of a parachute. As he points out, items loose in your pockets or stuffed in the back of your glider or aircraft may not land with you. Enough said.

In concluding this article, the safety message I want to leave with everyone is the need for constant surveillance when flying. As we start the 2007 summer flying season, let’s all pay extra attention for that unexpected aircraft or skydiver that might streak across our flight path. Let’s not meet by accident. Have a safe 2007.