For over 20 years, TCAS has been standing guard, protecting the skies from mid-air collisions. Countless catastrophes have been avoided thanks to the technology. Find out what TCAS is and how it works!
Quick history leading to TCAS development
In 1956, a mid-air collision between a United DC-7 and a TWA Super Constellation over the Grand Canyon killed all 128 occupants of both airliners. At the time, it was the deadliest accident in commercial aviation history. Research was initiated to develop an airborne collision avoidance system. Read more about this tragic accident.
By the 1960’s and early 70’s, prototype collision avoidance systems were available but gave numerous unnecessary alarms when tested in busy terminal areas.
On September 25th, 1978, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) flight 182 collided with a four seat Cessna 172 near San Diego Airport. Total fatalities: 144. After this accident, the FAA initiated development of what is now known as TCAS (pronounced Tee-Cass) – Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System. The system is also known in some countries as ACAS (pronounced Ā-Cass) – Airborne Collision Avoidance System.
The final straw came in 1986 when an Aeroméxico DC-9 collided with a four seat Piper Archer over Cerritos, California causing 82 fatalities (15 on ground). Soon after, the FAA mandated that airliners in U.S. airspace be equipped with TCAS. Other countries followed.
How does TCAS work?
An aircraft’s TCAS constantly queries (talks to) transponders of other aircraft in the vicinity. Thanks to fancy antennas and a little math, TCAS determines the bearing, distance, and altitude of these other aircraft. TCAS then watches and protects an area around the aircraft. If the system sees an “intruder” enter the protected area, it alerts the flight crew. TCAS gives pilots enough notice to smoothly and safely avoid the intruder.
What’s a transponder?
Airplanes flying in busy airspace are required to have a transponder. When an air traffic control radar “hits” an aircraft, the radar electronically asks (queries) “Who are you?” The transponder replies with a four digit code and the aircraft’s altitude. This information then appears on the controller’s radar display. TCAS queries aircraft transponders in a similar way.
TCAS Traffic Display
The TCAS traffic display shows pilots the location and altitudes of other airplanes in the vicinity. There are several types of displays manufactured. The one shown here is similar to what you would find installed on an older aircraft. Newer airplanes have the traffic display integrated on large screens with other information. Traffic symbols and colors are standardized on all equipment.
The Traffic Advisory – TA
The most advanced version of TCAS (called TCAS-II, used by airliners world-wide) provides two types of alerts. The Traffic Advisory, or TA, gives the flight crew a heads up that there is an aircraft nearby that could potentially cause a problem. A TA is triggered when the intruder aircraft is about 20-48 seconds away. The actual time varies with aircraft speed, altitude and maneuvering.
The intruder causing the Traffic Advisory is shown on the Traffic Display as a yellow dot along with altitude and climb/descent information. The pilots also get an audible warning. A loud voice on cockpit speakers will state: “Traffic, Traffic!” It really gets your attention when you hear it.
Upon hearing the Traffic Advisory, the crew will look at the Traffic Display to see where the traffic is located. If flying in clear skies, the crew will look out the windows and attempt to spot the intruder. Even if the crew sees the traffic, they must still follow commands from air traffic control. It’s very likely that the other aircraft won’t cause a problem. Sometimes, safe maneuvering, like an aircraft leveling off at a safe altitude below, will trigger a Traffic Advisory. In a busy month of flying I’ll get one or two TAs. Crews flying in really busy areas like New York or LA might see a few more.
Pilots love to come up with nicknames. The TCAS Traffic Display has a few good ones:
- Fish Finder
- Discovery Channel
- Metal Detector
- The Box
The Resolution Advisory – RA
The second TCAS alert is the Resolution Advisory, or RA. When TCAS determines that the intruder aircraft is 15-35 seconds away, it uses the altitude, direction and speed of both aircraft to calculate and issue a resolution. The pilot of the aircraft with TCAS will be advised to climb, descend, or maintain altitude.
If the intruder aircraft is equipped with only a transponder and no TCAS, its pilot may be unaware of the potential problem unless they see the other aircraft out the windows.
TCAS really shines when both aircraft are equipped with it. The two TCAS systems communicate with each other and negotiate a course of action for both aircraft. A typical resolution might have one system advising its crew to climb while the other advises its crew to descend.
When TCAS issues a Resolution Advisory, the crew will receive a loud command over the speaker. Some examples:
“Increase climb, increase climb!”
“Level off, level off!”
TCAS can only suggest altitude changes to avoid traffic. It won’t suggest a turn. Changing altitude is an effective way to avoid a mid-air collision. It keeps things simple.
When a crew hears a Resolution Advisory, there is no hesitation. The autopilot is immediately turned off and the flying pilot smoothly climbs or descends based on the instructions. During a TCAS maneuver, it’s important that the crew ignore all instructions from an air traffic controller.
TCAS provides enough advance notice (15-35 seconds) that the RA maneuver does not need to be abrupt. When done properly, passengers should not realize the maneuver took place. No coffee is spilled when an RA maneuver is performed properly.
How much should the pilot climb or descend during an RA?
When a pilot hears a Resolution Advisory, he or she will look at the RA display. Different aircraft have different styles of RA displays, but they all provide the exact same information. The Resolution Advisory display shows the rate of climb or descent required to avoid the conflict. The RA display is often integrated with the aircraft’s vertical speed indicator.
The Vertical Speed Indicator:
The instrument at the heart of a TCAS maneuver is the vertical speed indicator. The VSI shown here is similar to the type found in older cockpits. Newer aircraft have vertical speed information integrated with other instruments on CRT or LCD displays.
The VSI displays how fast the aircraft is climbing or descending in thousands of feet per minute (fpm). When the pointer is at zero, the aircraft is level. An airliner typically climbs at about 2000 fpm (pointer at the 2 near the top of the display).
Sometimes air traffic control will request that we climb or descend at a specific rate: “AeroSavvy flight 132, descend at 1000 feet per minute.” In this case we descend so the pointer is on the 1 at the bottom of the display. Easy!
During a TCAS Resolution Advisory, red and green highlights illuminate on the vertical speed indicator showing the exact climb or descent rate required to safely avoid the intruding traffic.
Newer aircraft may have Resolution Advisory guidance displayed on the artificial horizon as a red rectangle. The “vertical speed tape” on the right of the display also shows the red no-fly area along with the green target area. These types of displays are very intuitive.
Once the intruder is no longer a threat, TCAS will announce: “Clear of conflict.” All guidance information will disappear indicating to the crew that they can safely return to normal flight.
Here’s a video that brings it all together! Watch the TCAS Traffic Display as an intruder aircraft descends to our altitude while flying towards us. The intruder first triggers a Traffic Advisory so we can start looking for him. When the intruder triggers a Resolution Advisory, the red and green guidance bars appear, followed by the crew climbing the aircraft to safety.
The FAA and ICAO determine what audio callouts a TCAS system must make. Individual hardware manufacturers decide what type of “voice” and gender their system will have. Some TCAS systems are “male,” others are “female.” Here are a few of the required callouts in both genders. Click the “►” symbols to play the sounds.
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|Female Alerts||Male Alerts|
|Traffic, Traffic||Traffic, Traffic|
|Climb, Climb||Climb, Climb|
|Climb, Crossing Climb||Climb, Crossing Climb|
|Increase Climb||Increase Climb|
|Monitor Vertical Speed||Monitor Vertical Speed|
|Descend, Descend||Descend, Descend|
|Increase Descent||Increase Descent|
|Crossing Descend||Crossing Descend|
|Clear of Conflict||Clear of Conflict|