On Sunday, July 17, 2022, a tragic and most preventable midair collision occurred above the North Las Vegas Airport. The aircraft involved were a single-engine Piper PA-46 (N97CX) and a single-engine Cessna 172 (N160RA). Two persons were on board each aircraft, and all four perished in the accident. The victims were a student pilot and his instructor in the Cessna and two certified pilots in the Malibu.
Collisions of aircraft while in flight are unforgiving. Even slight contact involving minor structural damage could result in an aircraft being uncontrollable in flight, hundreds, or thousands of feet above the ground. Unfortunately, very few have been fortunate to survive midair collisions.
AOPA has done a comprehensive breakdown of what is known about the collision.
While we can expect a year before a final report from the NTSB is released, according to the AOPA Early Analysis, assuming it is accurate, one primary cause appears to be that the Piper conducted an improper approach to landing, lined up with the wrong runway, and continued its approach until the collision.
What makes this midair crash most unusual and very upsetting is that it occurred in strictly controlled airspace where aircraft separation is the task of the control tower at the North Las Vegas Airport. What critical and fatal mistakes were made regarding the instructions given to the pilots of the Piper and Cessna aircraft are yet to be known. However, what is known strongly suggests that this accident was entirely preventable, and some responsibility may lie with Air Traffic Control.
As with many accidents, there is a causal chain of errors that lead to their deadly conclusion:
First, you’ll hear a random person on tower frequency start unprofessionally chatting with the 7CX pilot and asking a non-essential personal question, to which the ATC provides no correction.
Second, the controller failed to provide useful traffic advisories in the period from 1900 to 1903Z (collision was approximately at 19:02:50 UTC).
Controllers can issue multiple clearances to land on the same runway as long as they are separated. Therefore, it is not only crucial but also required for controllers to issue traffic alerts when in their judgment, aircraft in close proximity to each other may pose a hazard.
The number one responsibility of an air traffic controller is to prevent collision between aircraft. At towered airports, the controllers control the traffic, not the pilots. Controllers don’t just let the pilots do what they want without their approval.
Even with ADSB in the cockpit, a pilot may not have total traffic awareness without traffic advisories from a controller. While it is at the pilot’s discretion when to turn to final after being cleared to land, it is the controller’s judgment as to when to issue that clearance, and that should be after ensuring no conflicts with other traffic.
While the Malibu pilot may be responsible for making a wide base turn to 30L and even lining up on 30R, could a simple traffic advisory have made him or the Cessna pilots more aware?
Regardless, an investigation of potentially at-fault parties should include the pilot and operators of the Malibu, air traffic control, the manufacturer of any defective ADS-B units, and possibly other individuals or entities, depending on the facts. If a midair collision case goes to trial, a jury will allocate fault on a percentage basis to each of the culpable persons and entities. This is done independent of any NTSB conclusions, as NTSB reports are inadmissible in evidence at trial.
Midair collisions are challenging, multi-causal, and complicated. Families of victims in these accidents deserve to get all of the answers based on all of the facts, so that they know why their loved ones died.
Aviation Law Group has successfully handled many midair aviation accidents. Most recently we represented four people who were involved in a midair collision in Alaska in 2019 between two seaplanes that collided at approximately 3350 feet above the inland sea near Ketchikan. Six persons died in that accident and nine were seriously injured.
At Aviation Law Group safety improvements are one of our primary goals. When appropriate we seek meaningful and effective changes to prevent similar accidents from happening. Regarding this accident, the NTSB/FAA should undertake (yet another) study of midair collisions in light of available (and foreseeable future) technology. Though a study alone is not enough, the resulting recommendations must be approved and implemented, and subject to change in light of changing technology. There needs to be a continuous, systematic, and coordinated effort by government and the aviation industry to significantly decrease the risk of midair collisions. The technological ability is there, it needs to be fully used.