A startling near-miss, but the CAA’s still nowhere in sight

29 March 2018 / by the GAA team / Governance, Safety

This cockpit video recording shows a close shave between two light aircraft, operating somewhere in uncontrolled airspace in New Zealand*. It was taken on a GoPro-type camera in a club aircraft. The two aircraft involved were on a collision course at virtually the same altitude.

The near-miss mightily alarmed the crew with the camera, who reported it on a CA005 incident form.

But what’s really shocking is that the near-miss occurred three years ago, and those who reported it haven’t heard a single word from the CAA.

This is just another example of multiple allegations that safety reports are not being responded to, and in some cases are not even acknowledged. These claims feature strongly in the GAA’s Independent Client Satisfaction Survey of the CAA.

To make matters even worse (if that’s possible), we understand that the incident happened when both aircraft were on different frequencies because there was – and still is – no Common Frequency Zone covering the area, which is a popular unofficial transit lane. The CA005 sent to the Authority after the 2015 incident specifically recommended the introduction of a CFZ.

It stated: “This area…could benefit from a CFZ! It is unclear as to which of several frequencies is best to use.”

Take another look at the video. The avoiding aeroplane, as it banks sharply left and climbs, might appear to be a fair way from the cockpit camera. But you need to bear in mind that this type of camera does not accurately portray distance, because it has a limited field of view. The two aircraft had a closing speed of about 200 knots. Thanks to the “see and avoid” behaviour evident from both pilots, there was little or no danger of collision. But they had no other prior knowledge of each other because they were operating on different radio frequencies.

What we can say for sure is that the human eye is far more acute, and this case – because of the radio frequency problem – it looked serious enough to report to the CAA.

The Authority, for all we know so far, just turned a blind eye. Either the form was mislaid, or perhaps the CAA felt this was too hot a potato, given the widespread controversy over a national network of CFZs at the time.

Some background…

The use of different radio frequencies within a common geographical area is something that has greatly troubled GA pilots in New Zealand for many years. It was first raised at the CAA in 1998.

In 2010, after a 2006 double-fatality collision between two training aircraft in the Manawatu (and another near Feilding that killed an instructor and student), Massey University suggested a national network of common frequency zones (CFZs) with the CAA and across the aviation industry. A formal request was made to the CAA in 2011. Due to “CAA staff levels and higher priority work”, it was not progressed.

Massey continued to promote the CFZ network at industry forums and in aviation publications. A formal letter was sent to the CAA on 5 September 2012 requesting further action on the concept. This was followed by a CAA meeting with Massey University School of Aviation staff.

The discussions identified the key safety issue as confusion about the appropriate radio frequency for use in uncontrolled airspace. The meeting also covered the use of the flight information service and a review of existing CFZs.

The CAA assessed the safety issue and proposed a solution using the Flight Information Service with improved coverage. It issued a discussion document (DW1259145-0) in April 2013 for feedback.

The CAA’s Manager Aeronautical Services made the following comments:

  • CFZs are not enabled under CAR Part 71 and there are no associated pilot requirements under CAR Part 91. For a rule change to progress a CAA policy decision is needed and Ministry of Transport approval for the project and associated funding. Rules are developed by CAA under contract to the Ministry of Transport.
  • CFZs are a New Zealand-specific type of airspace which means that overseas pilots operating here would not be familiar with them and that NZ pilots used to using them would not have these when operating overseas.
  • Establishment of multiple CFZs require additional aviation radio frequency allocation, which lowers available aviation radio spectrum.
  • The large number of frequencies raise human factors issues if pilots continually need to change frequencies.
  • The volume of CFZs and associated frequencies would be difficult to clearly put on visual navigation charts and may increase clutter.
  • A CFZ has no single monitoring agency and thus no alerting or emergency response.

Nowhere did he mention flight safety.

Ninety seven submissions were received. Sixty five were in favour of the Massey CFZ proposal; 18 favoured the CAA FISCOM proposal; 14 suggested alternatives.

Most submissions supporting the CFZ proposal noted the widespread confusion about frequency use (especially with 119.1) and when to use FISCOM. The CFZ proposal was acknowledged as simple and easy for a pilot to understand. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) submission noted that we need a plan that increases safety and decreases the likelihood of two aircraft in Class G airspace on different radio frequencies. FISCOM was acknowledged as needed for flight information, NOTAM and weather. Several submissions mentioned that general aviation pilots seldom operate above 3000 feet – maybe we could use a CFZ below a certain height and FISCOM above it?

The General Aviation Advocacy group provided a range of replies from supporters and submitted that CFZs should be legitimised, CFZs extended to cover areas of hazard and FISCOM handled as a separate issue.

Major representative bodies supporting the CFZ proposal included AOPA, Canterbury Aero Club, Nelson Aviation College, NZ Agricultural Aviation Association, NZ Helicopter Association, Recreational Aircraft Association of NZ and the RNZAF (Ohakea).

The CAA went on to discuss radio frequency use at three flight instructor seminars. Feedback showed a wide disparity in views and mixed support for either CFZ or FISCOM. However, one key message was that inappropriate and unnecessary radio chatter was increasing and was a safety concern.

Correspondence with the CAA indicated that neither the Massey CFZ proposal nor the CAA FISCOM proposal would be looked at again until the 2014-2016 National Airspace Review Plan was completed. Then Airways extended its PBN implementation plan and the National Airspace Review was “re-titled” to the 2015-2018 Airspace Review Plan.

In short, 20 years since this matter was first raised with the CAA, it has still not been addressed and the flight safety hazard remains.

Another deadly air-to-air collision may eventually focus the minds of the Authority and the politicians. But is it really necessary to suffer more fatalities to achieve a definitive solution?

The CAA’s fallback position is that pilots are required at all times to keep a lookout for other traffic.

Even the most vigilant lookout may not be good enough to spot a light aircraft coming head-on, against a background of cloud. This is shown by the video clip. And what are radios for?

Related information:

The CFZ network: How GA won, but the CAA denies us a safer place to fly until 2016

*Video may not be viewable on some devices