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Report finds air traffic controller, pilot reaction time at fault for fatal 2015 crash between F-16 and Cessna over Moncks Corner

By Gregory Yee, The Post and Courier

The official report on the fatal 2015 crash between an F-16 fighter jet and a Cessna over Moncks Corner places blame on the air traffic controller and a lack of time for either pilot to react.

The report, issued by the Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, concluded that directions from an air traffic controller to the fighter pilot to immediately turn 180 degrees to the left placed the two aircraft on a collision course.

The pilots were unable to see each other in time to avoid the crash and “did not use available systems which may have increased situational awareness,” the report said.

In addition, the air traffic controller did not give the fighter pilot air traffic information in time for the pilot to identify its conflicting path with the Cessna, the report said.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that while the controller made an error with the directions given to the fighter pilot, that pilot questioned the command and delayed in the turn, using his autopilot instead of grabbing hold of the controls.

The two aircraft collided July 7, 2015 above Lewisfield Plantation. Father and son Mike and Joe Johnson, of Moncks Corner, died aboard the Cessna. Their bodies were recovered in the Cooper River. Joe Johnson, 30, the pilot, had taken off from Moncks Corner airport minutes before, to fly 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.

According to the accident board’s findings, the fighter pilot entered Charleston Air Force Base/International Airport airspace and contacted air traffic control as required. The controller then put the pilot on a flight path that passed about 2 miles south of Berkeley County Airport at 1,600 feet.

That altitude placed the jet “on an intersect path with normal departure routes of aircraft leaving (the airport),” the report said.

The Cessna, meanwhile, was flying under so-called visual flight rules and wasn’t required to contact the air traffic controller under Federal Aviation Administration rules, the report said.

The controller, however, assumed the Cessna would stay under 1,000 feet altitude and didn’t let the F-16 pilot know about its presence in the airspace until about 2-3 minutes later, when the Cessna had already climbed above 1,000 feet.

The air traffic controller made the first traffic advisory when the Cessna was about 2 miles away from the jet, “a very close distance for aircraft closing in towards each other at 300 knots,” the report said.

“It is highly unlikely (either pilot), or any pilot in a similar situation, could have seen the other aircraft prior to the traffic advisory from (the air traffic controller),” the report said. “Both pilots clearly complied with all applicable rules and regulations, and I found no evidence of any deviations of FAA regulations by either pilot.”

The report also cited “various cockpit structures,” that impeded each pilot’s ability to see the other.

“At high closure speeds such as 300 knots, (seeing and avoiding another aircraft) is difficult and requires significant time and distance,” the report concluded. “If either pilot had seen the other in time to maneuver to avoid, the two aircraft would not have collided.”

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