I think VFR flight is worth saving and will fight to protect it (To build a fire…to save our airspace, July 21 issue). I am a member of several alphabet organizations that are leading the fight. As much as I want to protect it, however, we must realize that it will take only one rogue “VFR” pilot hitting an airliner to kill the golden goose of VFR flight. Unlike Thomas Norton I do not subscribe to the “big sky little bullet” or hope…you could fit all the airplanes in the U.S. over Arizona at the same time and nothing would happen.
In my short airline career I have had two near misses with what I would call “rogue VFR” pilots. In the first case I was taking off from an airport where the tower was closed in low IFR conditions (visibility 1/2 mile, indefinite ceiling). After getting my IFR clearance, I announced my intentions to take the runway departing north (I had made all calls on UNICOM and was monitoring it all the time, even while getting my clearance). While lining up with the center line and preparing to push the thrust levers forward, an aircraft called on UNICOM departing to the south. The FO and I looked at each other… surely this was at a different airport as this was the first time we heard anything and the aircraft was taking off into a hard IMC deck without a clearance from JAX center. I keyed the mic to clarify when a small jet took off over our fully loaded airliner (66 passengers, four crew members) in the opposite direction. If we had pushed the power levers forward a moment earlier, it would have been a mess. The aircraft checked in with JAX center and asked to open up their IFR flight plan. I attempted to get the FAA to take action, but it was my word against the other pilot’s word on what happened (of course, if we had hit, the CVR would have shown what happened).
The second case occurred at 10,000 feet while IMC. ATC advised me of opposite direction traffic at 10,500 feet, VFR. Again, we were solid IMC and the deck extended to 16,000 feet. The aircraft was operating in IMC above 10,000 feet, above class B airspace, not talking to anyone, at a VFR altitude that was incorrect for the direction being flown. A moment later TCAS gave us a descent RA. I again talked to center about tracking the aircraft and doing something, but they said there was nothing that could be done.
It will take just one such accident of a VFR aircraft operating outside the regulations hitting an airliner to shut down the VFR system and make flight plans required for all operations. We can scream all we want that the pilot in question was operating outside the regulations, but it will not matter to a public demanding safety. The ATA (Airline Transport Association) will go to Congress and say “We told you so!” Congress will react with draconian measures.
Our only hope is to stop this before it happens. I’m not sure how, but if we ignore it…well, “mene, mene, tekel upharsin” — the writing is on the wall.
El Paso, Texas