Collision might have occurred just beyond controllers’ range

A midair collision under a clear morning sky Wednesday might have happened in an area in which both pilots were on their own to avoid other air traffic.

The planes collided about 8:45 a.m., and part of one plane’s tail assembly was sheared off, forcing it to crash-land on a sagebrush-studded plateau below.

The other plane, with damaged landing gear, made its way back to Grand Junction Regional Airport, where it landed unsteadily, but safely.

No injuries were reported.

“Usually we have injuries of some sort or death” in such collisions, said Allen Kenitzer, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Investigators will look into whether either or both pilots were in contact with the tower and whether they should have been, Kenitzer said. They also look into whether either plane carried or was using a traffic-awareness system, which is designed to warn pilots of traffic in the area.

Air traffic controllers in the tower deal with aircraft within five miles of the tower, Kenitzer said.

Once outside that range and flying under visual flight rules, “They may not have been required to be talking to air-traffic controllers,” Kenitzer said.

The planes, one a Cessna 180 built in 1955 and the other a Cessna 210 built in 1980, might have had traffic-awareness systems aboard, but that wasn’t immediately known, Kenitzer said.

“That’s part of the investigation,” he said. “They could have the equipment, but we don’t know if they did.”

Midair collisions are extremely rare, but most of them tend to be within five miles of an airport, said Chris Dancy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents general aviation pilots and aircraft owners.

“You have more aircraft within the vicinity, you’re maneuvering more” in a tighter space, he said.

“Even in the wide-open sky, or maybe because of the wide-open sky” it can be difficult to spot other aircraft, he said. “Those are two awfully small craft in an awfully big sky. They can be difficult to pick out.”

When the weather is clear, though, “it is still the pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid other craft,” he said. “That’s the basis of visual-flight rules.”

A study by the pilots and owners association determined that from 1998 to 2007, there were 120 mid-air collisions in the United States, or one per month. That included 10 in which one aircraft landed on top of another, the association said.

With pilots flying an average of 2.1 million hours per month, that’s an average of 0.00001 accidents per day, the association said.


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