Air Force collision report disputed
By JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001
TAMPA -- Air traffic controllers could not have done more to prevent a deadly collision between an Air Force jet and a civilian Cessna last year, an accident in which the military pilots "were 100 percent to blame," according to the head of the controllers' union in Tampa.
"If the F-16s had called us and talked to us and gotten permission to be in our airspace, guaranteed, guaranteed, those two planes never would have gotten together," said Joe Formoso, president of the Tampa local of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
In an interview Wednesday, Formoso angrily denounced the results of an Air Force investigation, released Tuesday, which accepted most of the blame for two Air Force F-16 pilots. But it shifted some responsibility to controllers at Tampa International Airport and to the Citrus County pilot of a Cessna 172, Jacques Olivier, who was killed.
The collision occurred Nov. 16 near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. The pilot of the F-16 that collided with Olivier ejected safely. The F-16s were miles off course and descended through controlled airspace without contacting controllers as required.
"There is absolutely no blame whatsoever to the guy who died," Formoso said. "Controllers were talking to him, and he was doing everything they told him to do. It was the F-16s that weren't where they were supposed to be and weren't talking to us at all. They were way off course, and if they're not on their radios, we can't help them."
Specifically, Formoso disputed the Air Force contention that controllers had time to move the Cessna out of harm's way. Their report said controllers received a warning 30 seconds before the crash that two aircraft might be on a collision course.
Formoso said the alert sounded only 19 seconds before the crash, and before controllers could warn anybody about anything, they had to sort out which two aircraft were in danger.
Olivier's plane and the F-16s were flying under visual flight rules. Their transponders, the on-board devices that identify them on radar, were set at 1200, standard for all such flights.
The crash occurred in a prime practice area for pilots flying out of Sarasota, Formoso said. "At any given time, we might look at that area (on radar) and see 20 planes squawking 1200," he said. "The first thing we have to do is figure out which planes are in conflict."
In fact, Air Force investigators acknowledge, the alarm sounded for the wrong F-16. The two planes, designated Ninja-1 and Ninja-2, were flying in formation, with the wing commander in front, the wingman 3,000 to 6,000 feet behind and below his partner. Only Ninja-1 had an active transponder, and he passed the Cessna safely. It was Ninja-2, which did not even show up on TIA radar, that hit Olivier.
"There's not a controller on Earth that could, in 19 seconds, separate a Cessna and a flight of F-16s closing at 550 miles an hour," Formoso said.
An Air Force spokesman said he was unaware there was a dispute over the amount of time between the conflict alert and the collision.
"We did a thorough investigation," said Capt. John Hutcheson, spokesman for the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va. "They looked at this aspect very closely. If we used a figure of 30 seconds, I'm sure they believed that was correct."
Hutcheson said any discrepancy could have been resolved if Tampa controllers hadn't refused to cooperate in the Air Force investigation.
Formoso acknowledged that he didn't want his members dealing with the military, although they cooperated fully in a companion investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Being, in our opinion, a 100 percent military problem, I wouldn't subject my folks to some Air Force colonel," he said. "It would have played into their attempt to shift the blame."
But Hutcheson denies that any blame was shifted.
"I don't think the Air Force shied away from making a clear and full disclosure," he said. "Clearly, mistakes were made by our pilots, and we said that."
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