A picture in your head

Pilot in cockpit
pilot: © iStockphoto.com | Alina Solovyova-Vincent

By a Flight Safety Australia reader

One pilot’s apparent distraction with cockpit technology led to a loss of situational awareness in the circuit area, narrowly avoiding a mid-air collision

I’m always a little more wary on a day with a forecast of few clouds rather than clear VMC, as it can be much easier to miss aircraft transiting between clouds, making ‘see and avoid’ all the more difficult.

At the time of this story I was working as a freight pilot in a light twin, flying single-pilot IFR. I was on the home run, at the end of my first sector during summer with daylight saving active, which meant it was still daylight through the early evening.

As a private pilot I used to love flying in the evening during daylight saving—generally less traffic, smooth conditions and the fading light made for some spectacular viewing. However, as a commercial GA pilot, these conditions make me more aware of the likelihood of more traffic, rather than an overcast day.

On this day I was on descent into a CTAF airport, thoroughly enjoying the view after receiving no IFR traffic for descent and thinking to myself, ‘what a great office I have!’

Suddenly Centre gave me traffic information that might be a conflict—a VFR Piper Warrior to the south of me, tracking in my direction only 2000 feet below me and due to pass on my right side in two minutes as I descend through their level.

I tried to contact the aircraft on the CTAF and the guard frequencies, with no response. Centre wasn’t getting a response either.

I’d instantly gone from being peaceful to high alert—where is this guy? I can’t see him and the sky is ever so slightly obscured by a few small clouds, just enough to hide this aircraft.

The pilot of the other aircraft then contacted Centre and I asked for his position. The pilot told me that he would stay north of my track at an altitude 300 feet different from what Centre reported, and would now make a right turn.

This didn’t make sense to me and I replied, but again had no response. At this point I had no idea where this guy really was so I levelled off at what I thought was 700 feet above his altitude.

Centre again called me with a ‘safety alert’—the aircraft was on my level and crossing my flight path!

Diagram illustrating the flight paths of the two aircraft.
Diagram illustrating the flight paths of the two aircraft based on content supplied by the reader.

I immediately added power and started to climb and, just at that point, I saw the beige-coloured Piper Warrior flying directly across my path. I continued to climb and began turning to my right and saw this aircraft so close I could read the rego!

I told Centre I had him sighted and recommenced my descent. Once on the ground I saw the other aircraft land and taxi around to a bunch of old hangars. At this point, to say I was filled with emotion was an understatement! I decided I needed to talk to this pilot, so I walked over, gathering my thoughts and breathing deeply.

I approached the aircraft and looked inside the cockpit. The pilot had two iPads, two installed Garmin 430s, one suction-mounted GPS and what looked to be a brand-new radio stack.

I introduced myself to the pilot and asked where he thought I had been in the circuit. He said he thought he was turning away from me, and I swiftly corrected him!

He said he had just bought a new ADSB transponder and was trying to work it out, which explains why his altitude was off too.

I’m glad I kept my cool as he was very apologetic but I did have to explain the seriousness of the situation and the danger of having all that equipment in the aircraft but not looking out the window!


  1. Sounds to me like you were just as much to blame as him. You continued your decent knowing there was crossing traffic. Im not sure of the relevance of his ADSB transponder causing a reported altitude error. I dont think mine gives any options other than squawk code.

  2. “Amen to that”,I am fortunate to own a fancy car,abeit it does have all the fancy gadgets.Most of them I treat as part of my ”
    sterile cockpit “.As in eyes outside all the time,all the toy’s turned off,and if I have passengers on board,I only want to here from them if and only if they have something to say,about our journeyl,or see something that I might have missed.I might as well be driving an FJ.But a Porsche is much more my choice of travel

  3. All so true Walter. It’s sort of similar to defensive driving where basically you have a belief that everyone and everything is out to get you and therefore you will be on your guard every second you’re behind the steering wheel, which means you’re always ready to take instant evasive action to avoid a collision or whatever whenever that situation arises and over the years, the defensive driving technique has saved my skin on quite a few occasions!

  4. Paul Too true,I have had a few close shaves over the years.Walter has said many times that getting a flight crew licence is too easy these days.That could also be said about the drivers licence as well.These days you can almost get them, out of a Weet-bix packet.No offence to Weet-bix .I enjoy them every morning.

    • Agree Raptor. Back in 1976 when I obtained my Unrestricted Private Pilots Licence, it was pointed out to me that the requirements then to obtain same was the equivalent to obtaining a Commercial Licence in the US, but not anymore I’m afraid.

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