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Flawed communications cited before F-16, Cessna collision

By Bo Petersen, The Post and Courier

An air traffic controller who told an Air Force fighter jet pilot to turn left instead of right has been found to have contributed to a collision with a civilian Cessna over the Cooper River that left two Moncks Corner men dead.

The jet pilot, who used an autopilot to turn his F-16 instead of grabbing the stick, wasn’t found to have contributed to the July 7, 2015, crash.

But National Transportation Safety Board inspector Dennis Diaz said the controller did not violate the rules and that the right turn assessment was made “in hindsight.” The board report issued Tuesday delineates probable cause and can make recommendations to avoid future crashes.

The aircraft collided July 7, 2015, near Lewisfield Plantation. Father and son Mike and Joe Johnson died aboard the Cessna. Their bodies were recovered in the river. Joe Johnson, 30, the pilot, had taken off from Moncks Corner airport minutes earlier and was 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 were fishing. 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 pilot received a “turn immediately” command from the controller at Charleston International Airport when he was two miles from the Cessna, a two-seater he had been trying unsuccessfully to spot. The aircraft at that point were at slightly different altitudes but converging at 350 mph.

“Pilots have an obligation to look for and avoid other aircraft, even in (air traffic) controlled circumstances,” said John DeLisi, NTSB air safety director, introducing the report. The controller made an error in an attempt to ensure safe separation between the converging aircraft, he said.

“The collision likely could have been avoided” if the F-16 pilot had turned immediately realizing he couldn’t see the other aircraft, Diaz said. But the pilot questioned the command and should have been told to expedite the turn, Diaz said.

Also contributing to the collision was the “inherent limitations” of the protocol to see and evade other aircraft and the equipment on the two aircraft, he said. For example, the tactical radar on the F-16 is designed to detect fast moving objects that pose a threat and would not have picked up the relatively slow-moving Cessna, he said.

The Air Force is finalizing its own investigation and the service would not say what Maj. Johnson’s current status is or whether he is still flying. The FAA, which oversees control tower operations and person nel, does not comment on personnel matters because of privacy concerns, according to an email reply. The FAA would not say what options it could take in the wake of an NTSB finding. The controller, Patricia Covert, could not be reached for comment.

In a report leading to the finding, Maj. Johnson told investigators that the “turn immediately” command that came when the aircraft were two miles apart 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.

The controller told investigators she used the term “immediately” when doing a “squeeze play,” as when a plane was on short final approach and she cleared another aircraft for an immediate departure. The phrase “without delay” would be used if the aircraft on approach was farther out and she did not need the departing to “go,” according to the report.

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