As a pilot, the idea of colliding with another aircraft rattles me to the core. It’s an exceptionally rare occurrence, statistically speaking, but certainly one of the most horrific scenarios you could face in an airplane.

I learned to fly in the Denver area, flying in and out of one of the busiest corporate airports in the world: Centennial Airport (KAPA). The runways and taxiways there are almost busy–nearly a thousand operations per day–with business jets, turboprops, and general aviation aircraft of all types.

As one might imagine, getting in and out of the parking area at my flight school could be a perilous endeavor if you weren’t paying attention. My instructor was constantly in my ear about keeping my nugget on a swivel, whether I was walking or taxiing around the airport. It was sage advice, and I recall one incident involving a Gulfstream IV and a Cessna 182RG that really cemented it for me:

Photo courtesy of Gulfstream.
Photo courtesy of Gulfstream.

One early morning when I was walking out for a solo cross-country, I looked down the ramp to the south just in time to see the Cessna pull out of a parking spot in front of a taxiing G-IV leaving the TacAir FBO. Talk about heart-stopping! Thanks to good SA on the part of the two dudes flying the G, there was no crunching or swapping of paint. I can neither confirm nor deny finger gestures and profanities directed through Gulfstream cockpit glass at the 182 pilot, though.

To get away from the madness on the ramp, one would think getting into the air would be much safer. To an extent that is true, but  Denver International Airport–number nineteen on the list of world’s busiest–is just over twenty miles away. Buckley Air Force Base is less than ten miles from Centennial, runway to runway. Two areas of Class D airspace and plenty of Class E, all underneath the shelves of the larger Class B.

A portion of a section chat shows the airspace over the greater Denver, Colorado area.
A portion of a section chat shows the airspace over the greater Denver, Colorado area.

In a word? Busy.

It didn’t matter what time of day I was flying–dawn, daylight, dusk, or even in the darkness of night, there were ALWAYS other aircraft around. Between DIA’s “Big Iron” and bee-hive level of activity at Centennial, the possibility of my 180-horsepower bug-smasher getting run over by something bigger and faster was very real–and that’s just on the civilian side of the house.

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Buckley is home to the Colorado Air National Guard’s 140 WG, which flies Lockheed-Martin F-16Cs on nearly a daily basis. The base also has a large amount of transient military traffic. Even my home airport of Centennial fueled all sorts of awesome hardware, Navy Hornets and Super Hornets mostly, during their cross-country flights. It is the same deal at KBJC to the northwest, and Colorado Springs to the south. So no matter what airspace I was traversing, it was not an uncommon sight to see military fighters transiting the airspace within visual range.

When I heard about the collision over Moncks Corner in South Carolina a month ago, it struck a familiar chord. As you can imagine, we’ve been fielding a lot of questions about that incident.

(Photo Courtesy of AP/Fox News)
(Photo Courtesy of AP/Fox News)

Here’s a couple of the more popular ones:

1) “How do you guard against collisions where military and civilian aircraft are sharing the same airspace or approach patterns?”

“All aviators, regardless of military affiliation, operate under Federal Aviation Administration rules, regulations, and procedures for airspace. The 20th Fighter Wing complies with these in its daily operations,” says Lieutenant Colonel Matthew “Blitz” Ayres, Deputy Operations Group Commander at Shaw Air Force Base.

Before a Viper pilot at Shaw steps to his or her jet, a flight plan is drawn up, briefed, and submitted to the regional flight center. These briefings, depending on the nature and complexity of the sortie, can take an hour or two–maybe longer. The pilot identifies the airspace they will be using, emergency airfields along their path of travel, emergency procedures for specific airspace, and radio frequencies needed for each section of airspace.

2) What types of communication do the (F-16s) have with Air Traffic Control while flying?

Ayres offers, “That is governed by FAA rules, regulations and procedures.  Our aircraft are equipped with full two-way digital communications each time they fly, and they have a location and identification transponder which is fully compliant with the FAA regs and, in MOST cases, exceeds the FAA requirement.”

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Like all aviators, the Wild Weasel pilots at Shaw train to not only meet, but exceed the level of compliance mandated by FAA regulations. It’s not only for their own safety, but certainly for all pilots operating their aircraft in shared airspace. As a matter of fact, Shaw published “Crowded Skies” last year, a manual for general aviation pilots to try to educate them on how to deconflict airspace usage with military traffic in the area.

Taken from the "Crowded Skies" manual published by the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.
Taken from the “Crowded Skies” manual published by the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.

As with most accidents of this nature, exactly what went wrong and why will take a while to hash out, due to the evidence and available data needing to be sifted through.

There’s only so much airspace to go around, so military and civilian pilots must exercise their due diligence in their flight planning. Only constant and efficient cooperation between agencies will ensure accidents like this one continue to be a rarity. As the manual says, “keep your (nugget) on a swivel!”

Fly safe!

(Featured photo courtesy of the Sunday Express-U.K.)