Accidents involving vehicles of all sizes from bikes to trucks are something that we’ve all heard and seen. Whether it is two bikes crashing into one another or two trucks, the chances of such accidents on the road are extremely high. But when talking about airplanes, can two airplanes collide in mid-air? Well, simply consider the answer being, yes, but extremely rare. Such an accident can happen but why don’t we ever hear about it? That is the mystery to unravel. Let’s find out.
A mid-air collision is the same as when two cars crash head-on, the difference being the size, velocities, and medium. Mid-air-collision can be disastrous owing to the relatively high velocities involved and the likelihood of subsequent impact with the ground or sea, very severe damage or the destruction of at least one of the aircraft usually results. The potential for a mid-air collision is increased by miscommunication, mistrust, error in navigation, deviations from flight plans, lack of situational awareness, and the lack of collision-avoidance systems. Although a rare occurrence in general due to the vastness of open space available, collisions often happen near or at airports, where large volumes of aircraft are spaced more closely than in general flight.
Mid-air collisions tend to happen with smaller planes. Larger planes that carry hundreds of people have specific flight paths that are scheduled and tracked by the airlines and air traffic controllers. Smaller planes and helicopters that are operated for personal use, training, or in small commercial enterprises, such as sightseeing tours, are far more likely to experience an in-flight collision. This is due to the fact that these smaller planes may be less aware of one another than larger planes and do not necessarily have set schedules or firm flight paths.
Over 80% of all mid-air collisions occur when one plane tries to overtake another, often during the final approach. The sky is a highway for the pilots and the Air Traffic Controllers (ATC), every plane that is flying right now, has a different set of coordinates that it follows and a different flight path. No two same flights would be on the same course, coordinates, or height being a few feet apart. Every departing, cruising or arriving flight needs to meet a certain boundary for it to be considered in the safe zone and that boundary is set by the ATC and the on-board collision avoidance systems.
Apart from the ATC, the majority of all modern large aircraft are fitted with a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), which is designed to try to prevent mid-air collisions. The system is based on aircraft transponders’ signals that instantly alert pilots if a potential collision with another aircraft is imminent. Despite its limitations, it is believed to have greatly reduced mid-air collisions.
Heart break in 2002
Tragedy struck on the night of July 1, 2002, when two aircraft collided in mid-air over Überlingen, Germany, killing all souls on board both flights. The two ill-fated flights were a Bashkirian Airlines flight 2937 which was operating a Tupolev Tu-154 and DHL flight 611 which was operating a Boeing 757 freighter. This accident is what defines the term “Mid-Air Collision” perfectly. This is something that people rarely ever think of. The most unfortunate thing about this crash was that it could have been easily avoided. The collision occurred after the ATC personnel gave both aircraft the wrong instructions to follow. The TCAS instructed the crew of the TU-154 to descend, whereas the controller told them to climb while the crew at the 757 were already descending. Had both aircraft followed those automated instructions, the collision would not have occurred. They simply would have moved away from each other.
Not to worry
Systems like the TCAS are made to help the pilots in such situations and as the sky gets busier, safety changes are made and given maximum importance. Mid-air collisions are a very rare occurrence, however, something being rare does not mean something does not exist. Gladly, no serious accident has occurred in recent times. As years pass by, airplanes are fitted with the latest technologies one can only imagine, all with the single purpose to improve safety. So next time you’re flying on a plane, don’t bother waiting for an aircraft to come towards your window.