Thoughts on a Midair Collision

What may have gone wrong in the sky over Charleston.

Inside the cockpit of an F-16.

On July 7, about 11 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, a two-seat Cessna 150 was destroyed and its occupants killed in a midair collision with a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter based at nearby Shaw AFB. The pilot of the F-16 ejected successfully with only minor injuries, if any. Debris fell into a large area of ponds and fields that form part of a former rice plantation. An investigation has begun, with the area cordoned off to prevent anyone’s disturbing the wreckage.

Because the event happened in my backyard—or at least close enough to capture my attention—I’m going to do something I would never do normally, and draw some inferences before the facts are all in hand.

We have already learned from news reports that the F-16s from Shaw routinely practice instrument approaches into Charleston International Airport, a joint-use, civil-military airport that forms, with some U.S. Navy facilities, the recently merged Joint Base Charleston. It appears that the F-16 was practicing approaches at the time of the accident, while the intent of the two people aboard the Cessna is uncertain. They had just taken off from a small airport in the area, and were operating at around 2,000 to 3,000 feet when the impact occurred.

An experienced pilot friend e-mailed me today to raise the question on the minds of many people: How could an F-16 pilot miss seeing the C-150 from a perch in a fighter with perhaps the best exterior view of any airplane ever built? The pilot sits in a high seat surrounded by a clear bubble canopy expressly engineered to give every advantage against an adversary in aerial combat.

And here comes the inference: If the F-16 pilot was in fact practicing approaches, his attention would probably be directed at his instrument panel, rather than outside. In airplane parlance, he would have been “head down,” something like a person texting while walking down the street. The trouble is, the pilot has to be head down to practice approaches, and it’s difficult in that situation to shift rapidly from looking around outside to re-focusing on the instrument panel displays, where the approach profile is depicted electronically. If the Cessna was struck anywhere aft of the roughly 180-degree arc representing the forward view from its cockpit, the two occupants would never have seen the fighter coming in time to maneuver and evade impact.

Whenever they’re flying near any busy terminal, pilots flying visually are supposed to scan the airspace all around them. Still, it’s unlikely that you’ll easily spot traffic behind you, no matter how intensely your eyeballs sweep the horizon. If a high-performance jet is in the area, and that jet’s pilot is not working equally hard at a visual scan, the result can be tragic.

The incident resonated for me because of three near-miss experiences in my past, all of them when I was either flying or riding aboard a light aircraft. One occurred while I was operating as an observer in the back seat of an Army O-1 Bird Dog in Quang Duc province, South Vietnam. An F-4 that was part of a strike package just missed us by the length of a wingspan. He was coming from behind us in a shallow dive, and I didn’t stop shaking until about an hour after we landed.

In the late 1970s I was flying eastbound, on a low-altitude airway in Arizona, when another F-4 streaked by me at my altitude, coming head-on. I never saw him until it was too late to have done anything. There was a Military Operations Area well south of me, and the airway was supposedly mine at any odd number of thousands of feet, plus 500 feet for visual flights. If the F-4 was also flying visual, the rule calls for it to fly at even thousands, plus 500. I chalked it up to experience, and resolved to keep a sharper lookout.

The third incident was no fluke. I was shooting photographs of a B-17 for a Flying Magazine feature along with colleague Richard Collins, and I was perched near the open door of a camera plane. He was in the right front seat, talking on the radio and keeping a visual watch. Two P-51 pilots who’d heard about the shoot decided to converge on the bomber uninvited. When Collins asked them to vacate the area, one of them apparently took umbrage and suddenly appeared zooming across our path close enough that I could see his face for a split second. Collins told me he notified the FAA about the incident, and I later learned that the P-51 pilot was counseled by his local field officer.

There is nothing quite like the fright you experience when any airplane suddenly appears, unexpected and too close for comfort. In all three cases I survived my fright, but on Tuesday, two people who probably live not far from me lost their lives, and two airplanes were totaled. I have a tendency, perhaps a ghoulish one, to imagine myself in the place of victims of air accidents, as I did this time. In their case, the fright, at least, could not have lasted long.

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