Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

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drdehave
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Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby drdehave » Fri Nov 28, 2014 1:38 pm

It’s been nearly 2 months now since the horrific mid-air collision of two airplanes 12 miles northwest of Yerrington, Nevada took the lives of two of our fellow pilots.

I was there. It was my first trip to the Annual (5th) High Sierra-Nevada Fly-In sponsored by BackcountryPilot (BCP).org. The 3-day event held on a playa (dry lake bed) at 4,700 ft elevation was set to conclude on Sunday, the day of the crash. Just before 0800 hours, folks were lining up at the chuck wagon for breakfast; others were already in their airplanes, departing for home.

I was warming up my Sting Sport LSA, a few hundred feet south of the departure end of the East runway (there was a single East/West runway). To my left three airplanes were warming up, including a red-and-white Cessna 170B; a silver and black experimental Savannah pulled up on my right. Within seconds, the Cessna and Savannah, who were traveling home to Oregon together (different towns), launched and turned downwind, heading towards Carson City. But they didn’t get far. They collided in mid-air, just a half-mile north of the departure end of the East runway.

Watching what went down, literally, just ahead of me that morning has affected my flying. My decision-making is more methodical, serious and conservative; yet I recognize that even with better decisions, somebody else’s bad decision can still take me out in a heartbeat.

I had three video cameras running just before and during the tragic collision–-two GoPros in the cockpit and a larger, hand-held unit my friend outside was running, waiting to record my departure. Once the Authorities (NTSB & FAA) issue a probable-cause determination, I may produce a “teachable moment” video (to help steer the rest of us away from a similar fate), if I can stay within reasonably boundaries for tastefulness and respect (for the dead pilots).

Based on what I saw (including our video clips), I believe the Authorities’ will focus on deviation(s) from standard pattern (landing/take-off) protocol in their probable cause determination.

I could be more specific now, but that’s unnecessary. Authorities are the experts. They have many witnesses, crash scene (and debris) analyses, and video footage (including one reportedly capturing the actual collision, not just the falling debris that ours shows) to draw upon in deriving the truth. Mistakes made (and who, if anyone, was responsible) will be officially revealed soon enough.

Nevertheless, I’m also convinced there was a contributing factor to this mid-air collision: One or both pilots likely had degraded mental performance, due to fatigue from sleep deprivation.

This is my conclusion, based on two nights in a tent on the playa, not far from the deceased pilots. Getting decent sleep was problematic, if not impossible, especially on Saturday night (prior to the collision). Part of the blame must go to the “wild west” theme of the event: “Bring your guns and explosives, guys! Nevada is wide-open public lands, and that playa will be ‘party central!’” (my paraphrasing).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with the theme; it’s why I brought along an assault rifle! What I don’t get is why so many pilots (or were they non-flying party-crashers?) went “over the top,” jeopardizing everybody’s sleep, with gunfire volleys and explosive detonations (some producing concussion waves) throughout random wee hours of nights.

Maybe it was liberation-induced delirium. Many of us were from California and other “highly regulated” places, where such behavior would be met with SWAT teams in armored, military surplus vehicles. So some were probably aching to “let-er rip.” But ‘ripping’ at all hours of nights was inconsiderate, showed poor pilot judgement, and set bad examples for other knuckleheads to emulate–-a classic feed-back loop.

BCP should have shepherded the nighttime guns-and-explosives reveling into a set time period, protecting a “calm window” for sleeping. And they should have articulated why: “For pilots’ safety the next day, knuckleheads!” The fun and ‘liberation’ wouldn’t have been diminished a bit.

Yet on Saturday night, any “time-out” from ‘bad’ pyrotechnics behavior might not have promoted much sleep. That’s because Mother Nature threw us a punch, starting about midnight, in the form of a frontal-system passage and nasty northerly wind. For several hours it felt like tents and airplanes might get ripped from moorings. And when I got up several times to check on my stuff–-and airplane–-mine wasn’t the only flashlight flickering on the playa.

Furthermore, that big Saturday night blow had a secondary impact: It induced worry and apprehension about our flights home Sunday. Many of us knew there would be big northerly winds aloft going home to the west or north–-winds that could seriously impact fuel management and landings. (I arrived back in the Sacramento area unable to land in 37-knot north winds and had to divert to Lodi, borrow a car and drive home.)

So to recap: 1. For many, Saturday night was the second of two relatively sleepless nights on the playa, thanks to inconsiderate gunfire and pyrotechnics; 2. Now along comes a late-night frontal-system with associated gusty winds, necessitating we kept one eye open monitoring our ‘stuff;’ and 3. Then add associated worrying–-about flying home Sunday, against more of the same nasty north wind. It’s pretty clear a recipe existed for serious sleep-deprivation and pilot fatigue. I believe that fatigue reared its ugly head during Sunday morning’s departures.

For sure, by the time I taxied out to that warm-up area, I was dog meat! I bet many others, including one or both of the deceased pilots, were too.

Departure radio calls that morning (recorded on my cockpit video clips) appear to confirm it; most were stoic, subdued, and thin on detail. Pilots sounded tired! You were lucky to hear: “Blue-and-white Cessna 180 departing to the East, three shotguns,” and that’s it. In fact, I don’t think I heard (nor did I record) any sequential, follow-up calls, with pilots stating their positions and intentions after take-offs, as they exited (or prepared to) the pattern.

Despite shortcomings and the tragedy that ensued, I’d like to return to the playa (or a larger one?) again next year–-if the event continues. But I hope BCP elevates its protocols for the event to the next level and takes action to get better adherence to these rules. The size of the event now (100+ airplanes this year) and traffic congestion (not to mention all the non-flyers on the ground) would seem to dictate it. Adding a pattern altitude, pattern airspeed, and “must read” (or “listen”–e.g., on a temporary ATIS frequency) protocol document could be good first steps. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of reiterating appropriate non-towered airport rules that we’re all supposed to be following around the aerodrome, anyway. (Although I’d also favor adding a list of prohibited activities, too, including the “cowboy,” wing-up, low passes over the crowded playa and drones operating too close to flying aircraft.)

Pilots also need optimally-functioning brains for following rules and flying safely. So dialing back the ‘wild west,’ late-night reveling just a notch, so pilots can get restful sleep, would appear to be a “no-brainer.” Otherwise, look for my campsite to be out in the desert someplace, a few miles from the playa–or at a quiet motel in town.

Nevertheless and irrespective of improved protocols for the event, I intend to continue another risk mitigation strategy I used this year: Avoiding flying at the most congested places and times! Taking photos (and video), perusing all the airplanes and meeting other aviators are a big part of the “draw” for me, anyway.

Now, back to my sleep-deprivation/pilot fatigue rant. I take this topic seriously. We all should. In one study to be published soon by Authorities, fatigue played a role in 23 percent of major aviation accidents from 2000 to 2012.

When fatigued, falling asleep at the stick isn’t the concern; it is the insidious 20-50 percent drop in mental performance that may kill us! Reaction times slow; memory suffers; and basic decision-making and communications degrade.

It’s not hard to envision pilot fatigue playing a role in this deadly mid-air. Moreover–-and much like the insidious effects of hypoxia–-the affected pilot(s) may not have even realized it!

I apologize for such a long-winded rant. But for me, this write-up has become one step towards closure, a chance to start putting this tragedy behind and moving on. In that vein, may the two flyers have blue skies, tail winds, and peaceful rest!

Now, I’ll begin watching the Authorities’ reports on this accident. I want to know whether they “get it,” and identify pilot fatigue as a contributing factor. Even if not, this issue will remain high on my radar and continue being one reason I issue myself occasional “no-fly” days.

RWD; November 28, 2014.
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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby drseti » Fri Nov 28, 2014 7:05 pm

drdehave wrote:I apologize for such a long-winded rant.


Absolutely no apology necessary, Rich. You've given us all some very important things to think about. Thanks for posting.
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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby SportPilot » Fri Nov 28, 2014 7:38 pm

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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby zaitcev » Fri Nov 28, 2014 8:51 pm

The Copperstate didn't have an accident this year, if I remember correctly. And it was the year when they declined the temporary tower, because FAA asked for a lot of money. I heard that 550 airplanes attended the event. The only complaint I heard was that restrooms were far away from the camping fields.

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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby MrMorden » Fri Nov 28, 2014 9:05 pm

If you felt you were not rested enough to safely make your flight, you could have stayed another night to get proper rest.
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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby designrs » Fri Nov 28, 2014 9:11 pm

Events seem to bring together fatigue, urgency to get there (or home from), and lots of traffic. Definitely higher risk factors all the way around.

Often I generally try to avoid flying on weekends if possible.

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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby Jack Tyler » Sat Nov 29, 2014 11:01 am

Interesting detail, Rich. Your write-up (it didn't strike me as a rant...) paints a more personal picture than the NTSB typically includes in their accident analyses. And at least insofar as you experienced the event, it's hard to imagine fatigue didn't affect a broad spectrum of the participants.

I'm sorry to say one of my general conclusions is that these kinds of accidents don't speak very highly of the pilot community, or at least a meaningful slice of it. Your description reminds me of an accident last year at a popular backcountry airstrip, where a very young boy was killed due to a low altitude mid-air, of the classic 'low wing high & descending on a slower, lower high wing' kind. It was a great event, beautiful benign weather, and the strip is long, level and very forgiving. But there were over 100 a/c participating, lots of coming & going, and not nearly as much CTAF call-outs as was warranted, including from the 'low-wing high' a/c. The various types of a/c, arriving from different directions and with different flight characteristics, were going to present enough of a challenge...but some pilots chose to stay high and wide, trying to fit into what they believed was the existing pattern, while others reasonably concluded they could not enter the pattern and instead departed to return, and still others seemed oblivious to who was in the pattern when they arrived. This annual event has been very popular for some years now and hadn't previously registered an accident of this type, so the invitation is to anticipate the whole weekend as a benign event. Of course, when we stand back now and think about the sequence that led to several serious injuries and a death, a reasonable conclusion is that many participating pilots collectively helped create the accident envelope. I'll bet many of them lack that awareness.

IMO you are expecting a great deal from the organizing group that sponsors next year's event. After many decades of aviation rules, formalized training and much more, we still have the occasional bonehead arriving at my airport failing to make pattern calls, taking off from an opposing runway, and so forth. Add in alcohol, boys with their toys and a general sense of unplugging from society make this the kind of event I would choose to avoid no matter how much felt camaraderie might exist on the ground. Tho' it gives me no pleasure to say it, I think the main reason AOPA held six big events this year without a pattern/nearby incident and why the same can be said for the last few Sun 'n Fun events and also the Sebring LSA events I've attended - where we're talking about hundreds or thousands of a/c - is that these are all held under the cognizance of ATC and a highly formalized, well publicized NOTAM. We sometimes don't do as a good a job as a pilot community when there is a hundred or so aircraft.
Jack
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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby CTLSi » Sat Nov 29, 2014 11:21 am

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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby Vance Breese » Sat Nov 29, 2014 11:42 am

zaitcev wrote:The Copperstate didn't have an accident this year, if I remember correctly. And it was the year when they declined the temporary tower, because FAA asked for a lot of money. I heard that 550 airplanes attended the event. The only complaint I heard was that restrooms were far away from the camping fields.

I feel it is a mistake to imagine because something tragic didn’t happen that Copperstate was a safe operation.
I flew at Copperstate in 2013 and was not comfortable with some of the radio communications.
I watched several of what appeared to me to be near misses.
Casa Grande is always a challenge for me because there is so much IFR practice there. Fortunately when Copperstate happens the IFR pilots appear to find another place to practice.
The whole Phoenix area has a remarkable amount of air traffic and pilot training.
I found somewhere else to fly that weekend in 2014.
Regards, Vance Breese
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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby SportPilot » Sat Nov 29, 2014 1:36 pm

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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby drdehave » Sat Nov 29, 2014 1:50 pm

Yes, a single (marked with traffic cones) runway was designated, either East or West (no degrees), estimated variously at 1,400 to 1,600 ft in length, with left traffic patterns. But a traffic pattern altitude was not designated.--RD
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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby CTLSi » Sat Nov 29, 2014 5:16 pm

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Re: Nevada Mid-Air Collision: One Contributing Factor

Postby drseti » Sat Nov 29, 2014 5:22 pm

CTLSi wrote:Ah, so you were there and you watched the video of the planes on the ground and in the air that was provided a while ago. Not...


That was unnecessary. Snarky comments have no place in this community.
The opinions posted are those of one CFI, and do not necessarily represent the FAA or its lawyers.
Prof. H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D., CFII, LSRM-A/GL/WS/PPC, iRMT
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