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Mid-air crash in B.C. rekindles debate over mandatory anti-collision systems

June 30, 2013: Long weekend campers Brad and Kirstin Hallet survey a wing of a Cessna plane that was involved in a mid-air collision with a glider near Pemberton Saturday. The couple was camping at Nairn Falls at the time of incident in which four people died.


When a glider and two-seater Cessna collided in the skies above Pemberton, B.C., the two pilots could not rely on radar or an air-traffic controller to warn of the crash that would kill them and two passengers.

The Transportation Safety Board said it is unlikely either aircraft had any alert system other than the pilots' own eyes, and will look at "all practical safety improvements," including mandatory warning systems, as it investigates Saturday's crash.

Much of this country's low-altitude airspace is uncontrolled – devoid of radar or rules around radio use – so when Canada's roughly 65,000 pilots and 1,300 gliders take to the skies to accumulate millions of flying hours annually, they mostly rely on the principle of see and be seen. But the brain has its limitations – the eye can have a blind spot the size of a truck when an object is 150 metres away, let alone blind zones created by wings or interior door posts.

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A move toward mandatory anti-collision systems might seem obvious, but it is a point of contention among avid pilots and gliders.

"If you depend on that device to tell you all the planes that are around, you may get lax looking out for targets," said Kevin Psutka, president of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, and a pilot since 1970. "They're an aid, but they're not a crutch. And they shouldn't be a crutch because that'll kill people."

But others believe anti-collision systems could have prevented some of the more than three dozen mid-air collisions in Canada since 1989, and say they would support making alert devices mandatory.

"[An anti-collision system] is a safety device, and anything you can to do improve safety is worth doing," said Dave Springford, past president of the Southern Ontario Soaring Association and a glider since 1976.

Last fall, his gliding club spent $25,000 to outfit its entire fleet with a radio-based alert system called FLARM, which has been popular in Europe for years but only recently penetrated the Canadian market. Canadian distributor and long-time Ontario glider Ed Hollestelle said since the system was introduced in North America last year, soaring clubs and private gliders have bought more than 100 of the devices, which cost about $1,700.

Recreational pilots, especially gliders, are increasingly embracing the new and moderately priced technology. It is no wonder: Even outside competition, gliders tend to share air currents to sustain flight, and are a tightly knit group. This is important, because, for the alert systems to work, each of two fliers who are on a collision course must have them, or one has to have a warning device and the other a transponder.

Mr. Hollestelle credits FLARM with saving his life when he was alerted to a potential collision during a recent competition in Florida – unbeknownst to him thanks to a blind spot, another glider was behind and below him, and gaining altitude. Mr. Hollestelle, who is also a recreational pilot with more than 7,000 flying and gliding hours, said it is likely the two pilots in Saturday's crash – Terry Gale and Rudy Rozypalek – were similarly closing in at an angle that blocked their view of one another.

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He said he understands Mr. Psutka's misgivings about FLARM or one of the cheaper, less-advanced options – that the screen is distracting, that the device gives false alerts, and that it could make for lazy fliers. But since adopting the technology a few years ago, he's a convert.

Yet the debate is so fraught that even the European company's co-founder said he does not want his product, or one like it, made mandatory. "Aviation is already over-regulated," said Urs Rothacher, a glider of 25 years.

Still, he hopes for an uptick in voluntary adoption and said the company is marketing its technology to aircraft pilots – a demographic he described as more resistant since the perceived risk is less and installation is more costly and cumbersome.

Mr. Psutka, for his part, cautioned against a "knee-jerk" reaction to Saturday's crash. "Just throwing a piece of equipment at a problem so soon after it happens is never the answer," he said.

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