Traffic Cop



The proper way to manage risks is to look at the larger risks and eliminate those first. Eventually, you get far enough down the list that you get to negligible risks. That is not the way typical Americans handle risks. We consider handguns dangerous (there are ad campaigns to “keep guns away from your children”), when the truth is that unless you are involved in the drug trade or live in an area where it is happening, your chance of being hurt or killed by a gun is a lot lower than your chance of slipping in the shower and heading to the emergency room. Regardless, people worry about guns and not about those clever non-slip flower decals you can put on your tub.

We live in a culture of fear, which promotes all sorts of myths (like strangers are about to snatch your child). It is insidious and makes it difficult for us to assess real risk. We are faced with acquaintances (and friends) saying things like, “You let your son ride a motorcycle? Don’t you know how dangerous they are?” The same people are blissfully unaware that a thousand people a day arrive in emergency rooms with dog bites, and the most frequent victims are children. (Motorcycle accidents make better footage on the evening news.)

Right. We’re terrible at risk management and I am no exception. My imagination runs wild and I picture all sorts of things going wrong, especially to me, or my airplane, in flight. Fortunately, most of the time I am too busy to dwell on it. In some sense, that awareness of risk, at all times, helps keep the pilot alert and looking for possible escape routes and emergency landing spots. (I complained online that I thought my engine sounded like one cylinder was a little loud when I flew up to Friday Harbor and a fighter pilot wrote back, “Whenever I fly over the Atlantic in my F16, the engine sounds funny.” I felt a little better.)

One of the things that I worry about is running into other planes. Statistically, that’s a foolish thing to even spend a moment thinking about, until you are near an airport. Then you should scan the sky with your head on a swivel, and listen carefully on the radio (try to imagine where the planes are). Not worrying about running into another plane during a long trip is called The Big Sky Theory. As Nell realized when we were flying to Monterey once, the distances are significant and the targets are tiny. We were advised that there was a Cessna that was going to pass off our left wing and it was a little more than a mile away. We saw it, a hundred feet below, sail past in the opposite direction. Nell said, “Worrying about hitting that plane is like worrying about hitting a car that is on Wilshire Boulevard when we are driving on San Vicente.” Exactly.

But, you hear them on the radio they are often so clear it’s as if they are in the same cockpit. So I get a little nervous. The G1000 is amazing, because it shows them as little traffic targets (diamonds) on the moving map, and I can see the very planes that air traffic control (ATC) is talking about. (I always get flight following and that means they will, when able, give me traffic advisories: “There’s a Cherokee north west bound, two miles, at your ten o’clock, six thousand feet.” Okay, put that together in your head and start scanning the sky in the appropriate spot. The G1000 helps a lot for someone as graphically inclined as I am.)

Unfortunately, the traffic system built into the G1000 is passive. It gets its information from the ground-based radar stations. The radar gets range and position information from the various planes in radar range. It then interrogates the transponder in each airborne craft and gets individual altitude information. While it sends all this to ATC’s center for display on their screens, it also transmits it up into the sky, and if your plane is equipped to receive and decode it, you can see the same thing the controllers see. Well, sort of. There’s a delay for all that gathering and transmitting. And the system, called TIS, is only implemented in portions of the country.

(There is a more advanced version of the system, ADS-B, that the FAA has started to deploy. Of course, that will require a different set of equipment in the plane and different stuff on the ground, and they will phase out one for the other.)

So as I sail out over the desert, or up between Santa Barbara and Monterey, the display says, “Traffic unavailable.” There is no TIS in these less-densely populated areas. Before, I flew planes with no traffic display system at all, but now I have come to really appreciate my little target display. I don’t like being without it. Even though, rationally, hitting another plane between Rialto, CA and Jean, NV is an incredibly remote possibility, I worry. Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) is a much more common in the accident database, but I see the mountains and I worry that I won’t see that other plane. I want help.

The Cirrus planes have an active traffic system. That interrogates the other transponders and displays the same targets. The great thing is that it works out in the middle of the desert where the TIS is a wished-for rather than a loved-got. It also works when you are down low, below radar coverage (TIS can only send your plane information on radar targets, so if the plane isn’t on radar, TIS isn’t going to show it to you. The air traffic controller can’t see it, either.) This active system, made by Avidyne, is available for G1000 planes. It costs a cool twenty thousand dollars to install it.

(Back when I first met Nell and I was buying a motorcycle on my first weekend in Los Angeles the salesman was showing me my choices for a helmet. “Do you want the seventy-five dollar helmet or the hundred-twenty-five dollar helmet?” I looked at Nell and weighed the options on my hands: “Hmm, fifty dollars, my head, fifty dollars, my head.” I got the more expensive one. A similar conversation goes through my mind with the traffic system, but it’s really a bigger decision.)



There are portable versions of the active traffic system. In particular makes a couple that just sit on the glare shield. They have a two thousand dollar system and a five hundred dollar system. I ordered the cheapest, to see if it would work for me. It doesn’t show the direction to the target, but it shows the distance and the relative altitude for the nearest target. Since I am always talking to ATC, I can ask about the target and if it is a concern I can change altitude (just climb or descend).

I tried it out on Saturday, just flying the traffic pattern at Santa Monica. The LED display is nice and bright. It showed the nearest target, agreeing with the TIS display. As far as I can tell, this is perfect for me. It’s tiny (a deck of cards), runs on AA batteries, and can just be set on the glare shield for the few times I need it.



The next size up is another fifteen hundred dollars (fifty hours worth of fuel). It is considerably bigger and would be a pain to store, retrieve and set up on each of the flights it was needed for. I’m going to stick with the little one. Thursday is a milk run to Vegas, so I’ll see how the MRX does over the desert.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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