As a pilot, I have had multiple “near miss” events. Most pilots I know have had similar experiences. Some of these events still scare me today when I think about them, others were less intense and grave, but I also remember all of them…and what they taught me.
A near miss is any unplanned close proximity passing of two or more aircraft. Sometimes one pilot sees the other aircraft and maneuvers away, taking evasive action if you want to be dramatic. Sometimes both pilots see each other and avoid. These kinds of passes happen daily in the airspace structure of the world. Eyeballs, controllers, and new modern electronic detection measures also aid pilots from bending metal in the sky.
But the really scary near misses are the ones that no pilot sees, until it’s too late, or both aircraft safely pass and the pilots become aware of that danger after it has passed. Just knowing how close you came to death, and never recognizing it, is a terrifying thing. Those types of passes will keep you up at night for years to come. Trust me.
You may have read recently that a U.S. coalition aircraft flying over Syria had a near miss with a Russian fighter jet. Some reports have said that the near miss put the two aircraft about a mile apart, while other reports put things a little closer. This close call is said to have been inadvertent, and not an act of aggression by either country. It was an accident.
Why is This Near Miss a Big Deal?
There are a lot of reasons that this event is gaining so much press and notoriety (including this report you are reading). Obviously it’s bad when any aircraft reports a near miss or near collision. Lives could be lost. But this event is especially noteworthy of course, because of where it occurred, and the players involved. Over the hostile skies of Syria of course, and with the two big kids on the block…the U.S. and Russia.
Flying over Syria, or any battlespace these days is nothing new. NATO coalition aircraft have flown over multitudes of countries since NATO was formed in 1949. But this near miss becomes even more important when you consider the global powers involved. Already on some shaky ground, U.S. and Russian relations are strained. Particularly when you start talking about the Russians’ goal in Syria to “fight ISIS” and possibly help the Assad regime too by striking some odd targets and the U.S. backed Syrian Army.
Additionally, when was the last time a Russian jet was shot down by a NATO aircraft? (Not counting the purported Russian pilots flying North Vietnamese MiGs in Vietnam). It was in 1952 over Korea/Sea of Japan to be exact. So it’s been some time since we’ve tangled with the mighty Soviets, and doing so again now could prove to be just as unsettling. A collision, or loss of both U.S. and Russian personnel and equipment, could push the whole situation over the brink.
Near misses and close calls are nothing new. The FAA reported recently that the near miss rates in the U.S. alone rose from 2.44 to 3.28 per million flights. That’s over ten a year just over the U.S. alone! And that’s reported cases, how many more go unreported? Some different reports say that there are thousands of close calls every year, depending on how you define them, and about 40 per year “high risk” near misses annually.
Now consider close calls over the entire world, or especially over a congested war-stricken country like Syria.
Airplanes getting close is nothing new.
In fact, making the problem worse in this situation, the U.S. and Russian aircraft were operating lights out at the time of the close call. Standard procedure for combat operations actually. Additionally, both countries actually have (and use) a de-confliction protocol to help ensure safe separation in the skies above Syria. What’s impressive to me is that a de-confliction plan has been constructed, and is in fact being used by both parties, actively.
That handshake deal for aircraft de-confliction is pretty awesome, considering the state of affairs between the two powerhouse countries.
“The U.S. suspended its military relationship with Russia over the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2014, but the two sides have set up a de-confliction channel to avoid accidents over Syria.”
But for some reason, this time, that plan didn’t work. Someone was not where they said they would be, or someone was in the wrong part of the sky at the wrong time. We may never know the answer to that, but military leaders and spokesmen insure us that the issue is being discussed and handled.
This week, the talk and news media has seemed to have forgotten about the incident. It’s back to business as usual (whatever that is) over Syria. But these near-miss events will continue to occur, despite a semi-solid de-confliction plan amongst the players. That we can be assured of.
We just need to hope that an incident like this doesn’t happen again, but where lives are lost. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time. A collision over Syria by U.S. and Russian aircraft would severely strain the already stressed relationship.
Image courtesy of USAF