Transcribed from the Altus Times-Democrat, Altus, OK, June 7, 1971, p. 2:

‘See and Be Seen’ Rule Stymies Study of Collisions

Associated Press Writer


WASHINGTON (AP) — Government efforts to end deadly midair collisions have become caught in a fight between two safety agencies over an old flying rule left over from the Lindbergh days–the rule of “see and be seen.”

In a jet age with airliners flying 600 miles an hour, a safety board is questioning whether a pilot’s eye is fast enough to resly upon to see and avoid collisions.

The latest disaster that killed 49 in a crash between an Air West jet and a Marine Corps fighter plane Sunday near Los Angeles met all the classic conditions:

Clear, sunny skies. A crowded airliner flying under radar rules, only a few minutes away from its airport. Another plane zipping along by visual rules–what the radar people call “unknown traffic.” Failure to spot it soon enough. Death.

The tragedy added to an already grim list of numbers:

— Midair collisions have resulted in nearly two-thirds of all deaths, 240 out of 396, in U.S. jetliner crashes over the past four years.

— Almost once a day, somewhere in the nation, another jetliner has a close brush with a private plane in what the government labels a “near-miss.” The study containing these statistics cited Los Angeles as the most dangerous area, New York second.

— In the next 10 years, another government study predicts, 528 persons will die in airline disasters in midair if today’s odds aren’t reduced.

The Los Angeles crash ended nearly two years for the nation’s major airlines without a fatality on a regular jet flight, a safety stretch without preceden [sic] in modern aviation history.

It was the last disaster, an 83-death collision between an Allegheny jet and a student pilot’s plane near Indianapolis, Ind., in the fall of 1969, that touched off both an intense study of midair crashes and the safety quarrel.

The dispute involves the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent agency which investigates accidents, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that writes the safety rules and controls the nation’s air traffic.

The NTSB blamed the Indianapolis disaster on what it called gaps in the FAA’s control of air traffic. It said the old “see and be seen” rule, in the NTSB’s words, “totally unacceptable” today in airport areas where jetliners are mixed with private planes flying visually.

The FAA issued a 1-page reply saying the pilots of the two planes still had the responsibility to see and avoid each other.

But the NTSB repeated its arguments in March against mixing the two types of air traffic near airports in a bulky study of the midair collisions that contained the ominous 10-year death prediction.

The strained gulf between the NTSB and the FAA has been growing recently. The NTSB has been publicly critical of the FAA in a number of its reports.

Privately, FAA officials from the agency’s top man on down, have been heard to accuse the NTSB of both headline-grabbing and power-grabbing.

The safety board is sending its team of experts to Los Angeles to probe the latest crash. As usual, the FAA is sending its own men along as observers.

The collision over the stark San Gabriel Mountains came 10 minutes after the Air West DC9 jet had taken off from Los Angeles for Salt Lake City. As all jetliners do, it was flying a specified route under radar control even though skies were clear.

The FAA said the Marine F4 Phantom jet was flying by visual rules, which mean it had not filed a route plan with radar air-traffic controllers. The FAA said radar watchers saw the two planes on their screens just before the crash–apparently not in time to warn them.

The crash fit what the NTSB has described as the usual pattern — clear weather with good visibility, one plane either climbing or landing, a second plane using visual rules while within range of a major airport.

Four of the last eight jetliner disasters have happened largely this way. The Indianapolis jet was landing. A Piedmont jet was taking off in North Carolina when a collision killed 82 in 1967. Another jet was landing in Ohio when a midair crash took 26 lives the same year.