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Avoiding High-Speed Impalement

Getting too close to an obstruction can make for a really bad day.Getting too close to an obstruction can make for a really bad day. To a pilot, the sky represents freedom from all the bonds of Earth, but there are many objects that intrude on that freedom by sticking up into or being strung across the sky. Some of them are easy to see, some are not. We need to be aware of them all...

Towers: Antennas are now in place across the United States that are taller than 2,000 feet AGL -- that's *twice* as high as most airport traffic patterns. When a layer of low clouds form, these tower tops are often seen above the clouds. Caution: These towers are a safety threat to all pilots, but the tower itself is just half the problem...

Guy Wires: The tower is held in place by wires that are hard or impossible to see. These wires can stretch out as far from the base of the tower as the tower is high.

Warning Signs: Towers that are 500 feet tall and higher are painted with alternating white and 'aviation' orange paint usually at 100-foot intervals up the tower. The tower may or may not have lights. Towers can have red beacons that flash by day and remain steady at night. They could have white flashing strobe lights, or they can have combinations of white and red.

The wires that hold the tower up are completely unmarked.

Power Lines: Overhead wires are also a threat to safety because they very often span the approach to runways, are strung over rivers, and across canyons. These wires are also very hard to see until they are too close for safety.

Warning Signs: Sometimes the supporting structures that carry the wires have strobe lights that flash in succession down the line. Occasionally red warning balls are attached to the wires to make them more visible, but there are not enough of these. Pilots, especially seaplane pilots, should use extreme caution when approaching or departing unfamiliar airports and seaplane bases.

Most transmission wires and their support towers are not lighted at all.

Not all obstructions are printed on sectionals, but all can pose a serious threat...

  • Balloons -- unmanned weather, surveillance and even advertising balloons are dangerous. Surveillance balloons are used to look back at the ground with radar for drug interdiction and other purposes. Pilots are advised to give PIREPS on weather balloons to controllers so their location can be passed on to other pilots.

    Tethered balloons connect to the ground by cables and can fly above 10,000 feet. Untethered weather balloons will trail an antenna.

  • Construction sites of towers or buildings may not be included on charts, and even when completed the location of the obstruction may not get on the chart until the next scheduled printing.
  • Cranes usually only have a flag to alert pilots – which can't be seen at night.
  • Cell-phone towers now dot the country; most are not included on the charts.
  • Objects less than 200 feet high are not reported to the FAA.
Everyday, ground-based intrusions invade the world of the pilot. Do us all a favor and fly low *only when absolutely necessary* for takeoff and landing. When traveling to an unfamiliar airport, read the facilities directory for information on power lines and obstructions and always check NOTAMS for your route of flight. Talk to local pilots about where hazards can be found. Fly with current charts (it's the law) and always be watching for obstructions until you get several thousand feet in the air ... then start watching for the really fast airplanes.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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