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Gray Areas

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By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091

This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the June 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

Just about anyone who flies an airplane understands the regulations pertaining to visual flight rules and understands the importance of separating IFR from VFR traffic. Likewise, pilots who frequently fly under IFR understand that those regulations are in place to protect them when flying blind. For the most part, the regulations and operating procedures keep the two types of operations clear of one another. However, there are times when both VFR and IFR pilots find themselves in a gray area — and separation might not be as we would hope or expect.

Not too long ago, the pilot of a single-engine Cessna was inbound on an instrument approach to Runway 28 on Block Island, Rhode Island (KBID). The approach is over the ocean. Like many pilots operating in such a scenario, the pilot wasn’t anxious to descend too far from land. At the time, he was in clear blue skies, but as he neared the airport, he encountered a broken cloud layer with a ceiling of 700 feet. From a safety standpoint, it made sense to fly the IFR approach. The pilot could stay relatively high and drop down through the broken cloud layer to complete the landing. About 7 miles out, approach control cleared the pilot for the approach and approved a frequency change for local traffic advisories. The controller might have mentioned that no traffic was indicated in the area, but of course, that situation could change with little or no warning. The pilot switched to his alternate comm radio and announced that he was on a 7-mile final for 28.

Just about that time, the pilot of a twin-engine Beech Bonanza had started his engines and was taxiing out to complete a runup for a VFR departure from Block Island. He switched his comm to the automated surface observing system (ASOS) frequency for a final check of weather conditions and then completed his final before-takeoff checks.

By the time the Bonanza pilot had finished, the Cessna pilot had started down to his minimum descent altitude. Descending through the broken layer, he expected to break out a mile or so from the end of the runway. He made a call on the UNICOM frequency to announce that he was on final for 28. Considering the ceiling was only 700 feet, the pilot couldn’t imagine that anyone would be operating in the area under VFR. After all, he was in protected airspace and had an IFR clearance. What he might not have fully considered is that his protected airspace ended at 700 feet, and below that altitude, a different set of rules was in play.

The winds were near calm, and the Bonanza pilot announced on UNICOM that he was departing on Runway 10, which would head him toward lowering terrain. He pushed the throttles forward and accelerated down the 2,500-foot runway. The pilot intended to level off at 600 feet and remain in Class G airspace until clear of the airport area and the broken cloud layer. For daytime VFR flight, he would need to remain below Class E airspace, the floor of which was 700 feet, and he would need in-flight visibility of 1 mile while remaining clear of clouds. Departing over the water, he knew he would also need to remain 500 feet from any vessels operating on the water. Visibility was about 8 miles, and he expected to be out from under the clouds within a few miles of departure.

The Bonanza pilot had heard no other aircraft reporting in the area when he made his in-the-blind announcement of his intention to depart. In his mind, everything was good, safe, and perfectly legal. However, there was one particular risk that perhaps had not entered the pilot’s decision-making. It would catch up with him soon enough.

Just as the Bonanza pilot pulled the throttles back to level off and start his departure turn, he caught a glimpse of the Cessna — dead ahead and descending on a collision course. He quickly manhandled the controls and wrapped the twin into a steep bank to avoid what seemed like an imminent collision. The two aircraft missed each other, but not with a lot of distance or altitude to spare. I suspect that each might have wondered (perhaps angrily) what the heck the other pilot was doing there at the time of their near-miss.

As this near-miss illustrates, there are times when pilots experience those gray areas where VFR and IFR flight operations can overlap. Regardless of how we might interpret such a situation — who was right and who was wrong — the keys to survival when operating in such gray areas are to be vigilant, take all possible precautions to ensure separation from other aircraft, and recognize that others might be operating by a different set of rules.

One would think that the announcements made in the blind by both pilots would be adequate to maintain accurate situational awareness, but anyone who has been flying for long recognizes that it doesn’t take much to miss a call or two. In this case, it is suspected that the timing was off, and pilots were momentarily listening to other frequencies when the calls were made. Likewise, the pilots might have stepped on one another’s transmissions at a critical moment. Other errors can also complicate the situation, such as tuning into the wrong frequency or having the volume turned down.

One precaution the Bonanza pilot could have taken would be monitoring the approach control frequency for the area and listening for any inbound traffic. Although it was perfectly legal for the pilot to make a VFR departure under the prevailing conditions, the pilot could also have filed for an IFR departure, which would have improved situational awareness.

Another tool at our disposal to help maintain situational awareness is ADS-B, but even that holds no guarantees and cannot help us in all scenarios. Since ADS-B technology is not required by all aircraft operating in all areas, gray areas still abound. Only ADS-B Out (where information goes out to others but is not received) is fully mandated, and that mandate only applies to certain airspace as defined in FAR 91-227. In this particular case, ADS-B was not required but would likely have given both pilots the heads-up they needed to maintain separation had they been equipped and using the equipment.

The rules and procedures we rely on normally provide a high degree of safety when operating both under VFR and IFR, but there are those areas where aircraft nearby can be operating by a different playbook. The regulations are black and white, but at the fringes — those gray areas where pilots can fly by either set of flight rules — we need to understand some harsh realities and the risks they impose. It is in those areas where we need to take every possible precaution to ensure safety.

Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.

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