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FAA releases Moncks Corner fighter jet crash report

By Bo Petersen, The Post and Courier

MONCKS CORNER – Less than 30 seconds from a collision, an Air Force major flying on autopilot used the device to turn his F-16 instead of grabbing the stick.

The fighter jet rammed a civilian Cessna. A father and son were killed in the mid-air collision over the Cooper River last year.

An Air Force combat command chief – a colonel – told investigators that in the same situation, he would probably override the autopilot to turn more aggressively than the device allowed. Both officers’ statements were among the findings in a National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash released Monday.

The aircraft collided July 7, 2015, near Lewisfield Plantation. Father and son Mike and Joe Johnson, of Moncks Corner, died aboard the Cessna. Their bodies were recovered in the river. Joe Johnson, 30, the pilot, had taken off from Moncks Corner airport minutes before, flying to Myrtle Beach for the day.

The jet’s pilot, Air Force Maj. Aaron Johnson, (no relation) parachuted to safety. He was said to be on a solo mission to practice instrument-assisted approaches at Charleston Air Force Base and intended to return to Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter that day. He was picked up at Medway Plantation shortly after the collision.

Debris from the crash rained down on the river around a boat where a father and son out fishing watched in horror. The father said the contact happened about 300 yards above a nearby duck blind. Under a plume of black smoke, he piloted the boat to look for survivors.

The report and accompanying material “contain only factual information collected by NTSB investigators, and do not provide analysis, safety recommendations, or probable cause determinations,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a news release. The air combat chief was not identified in the report.

It’s part of an ongoing investigation into the collision that will be presented to the NTSB board on Nov. 15 for a ruling on probable cause findings and safety recommendations, spokesman Peter Knudson said.

“Opening the docket affords those with a need and desire for its contents the opportunity to review what factual information has been gathered about the accident,” the FAA release said.

The Air Force is finalizing its own investigation, said spokeswoman Maj. Malinda Singleton. The service would not say what Maj. Johnson’s current status is or whether he is still flying. The investigation findings might not be released until the NTSB findings are, she said.

In the report, Maj. Johnson told investigators he received a “turn immediately” command from air traffic controllers at Charleston International Airport when he was two miles from the Cessna, a two-seater he had been trying unsuccessfully to spot.

It was “the closest call I’ve ever received,” he said, “a big alert for me.”

But he continued to use the autopilot so he could keep searching for the aircraft. He spotted the plane within 500 feet directly in front of him, pulled the control stick to override the autopilot but collided less than a second later.

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