FAA, NTSB Need to Accelerate Transparency about Midair Collisions

Two men were killed three days ago, when their Cessna was broadsided by a low-flying Air Force F16. This was a tragic accident that should never have happened, and would not have happened if any of the following practices had been followed by FAA:

  1. ensure the instrument approach procedures designed and approved by FAA do not create high-risk conflicts with nearby airport operations (in this case, the GA field at Moncks Corner);
  2. regulate military jet instrument practice in civilian airspace to include much slower maximum airspeeds (i.e., if  ATC cannot ensure that the route is clear of all other aircraft, then ATC must restrict the military jet to much slower speeds, as they would a civilian jet).

The Cessna occupants died, so it is easy to try and pin the blame on them for having just taken off and being in the wrong spot when the collision occurred. But, based on statements made to reporters in the immediate aftermath, it is clear that FAA’s controllers were working the jet, and that it was at a very low altitude either setting up for or actually on a published instrument procedure. It is also clear that high-speed low-flying military jets were a huge concern in South Carolina, even a week prior to the midair. For example, a news article on June 29 generated the following selected reader comments:20150707scp.. Comments re low-flying SC military jets, from recent WYFF article, 'Fighter jets heard, spotted over Upstate'

There appears to be a developing trend toward more aggressive military training flying, with more impact upon residents below. This incident reveals the worst-case consequences of this trend. The ATC clearance issued by the radar approach controller to the F16 pilot is a matter of documented fact. It is recorded digitally, and the audio data is saved, by FAA. Likewise, the radar data used by the controller working the F16 just prior to the midair collision is also digitally saved. This data will show conclusively, where the actual collision occurred (the lat/long as well as the altitude), the flight directions of the two aircraft at time of impact, and what opportunities ATC had to ‘save’ the accident from happening.

These digital files are immediately retrievable by FAA, thus have already been shared with NTSB. When Boeing 787’s had battery fires a few years ago, NTSB did a fantastic job showing the problem (with pictures of a burnt battery, no less) in a timely news interview. Likewise, when the Asiana flight crashed while landing at San Francisco, NTSB again was wonderfully transparent. We need this transparency, not only to help answer the reasonable questions and concerns of many citizens, but also to accelerate the ‘lessons learned’ from aviation tragedies, to help active pilots avoid tragic repeats. It has been three days, and FAA needs to post these files online, for the world to see the scenario that led to this tragic midair collision.

The Need for Safely Designed Approaches

Many people do not realize that the flight of the arriving F16, reportedly doing instrument practice into Charleston AFB [KCHS], is not at all random. That is to say, the flight was communicating with FAA ATC, was flying in accordance with an ATC clearance, and was either on or joining a published approach procedure. These published procedures are supposed to be designed so as to minimize safety hazards. Dozens of different offices have to sign off before a new procedure is finally published, so it should never happen that a procedure is published that routinely puts aircraft at risk of collision. That said, take a look at this published approach, the RNAV (RNP) Z Runway 15 to KCHS:

KHS_IAP_RNAV (RNP) Z RWY 15

(click on image to view larger PDF copy)

Note the fix KREIS (upper red box), with a hard altitude of 3,000 feet. Note also the first speed restriction is at JCEEE fix, 4.4 miles after KREIS fix (lower red box). 20150707scp.. Midair VFRmap, showing potential routes & KREIS fixThe lat/long for KREIS places it as indicated in red on the VFRmap portion. A left-turnout departure by a Cessna from KMCS to Myrtle Beach would approximately follow the green curve. The red line leading south to KREIS fix would approximately depict an arrival from Shaw setting up to fly this published procedure (i.e., a radar vector or a ‘Direct KREIS’ clearance). It is common practice for pilots to level off at the next crossing altitude (in this case 3,000 feet) at least a few miles before arriving at the fix. So, IF the arriving F16 was in fact being set up for this published approach, the pilot would have likely been screaming along, even in excess of 300-knots, and at a very low altitude of just 3,000 feet. Also, look closely at this published approach and it quickly becomes clear: with the annotations about ‘Radius to Fix required’ and very advanced (low) RNP requirements, this is clearly an approach NOT for regular GA flights, but most likely for military use.

We do not know if the F16 was flying this approach or another. FAA can easily answer this question, as they need to do with no further delay. As a matter of practice, to best serve the entire public (not just the narrow interests of aviation), FAA needs to routinely and immediately disclose audio recordings, transcripts, and radar presentations that depict the facts, following significant aviation incidents such as midair collisions. Clearly, a timely internet posting at the FAA website would be both effective and efficient.

FAA Opacity on Safety Data: the ATSAP Black-Hole

It is also highly likely that the FAA controller immediately filed an ATSAP report. This program grants immunity to controllers if/when they have an incident, so long as they voluntarily report what happened. The controllers are not required to report all details, and being human, they tend to report a story that places them in a positive light. But, even with that, they do report important details, that need to be disclosed if the public is to understand the incident. Regrettably, FAA has gone to considerable effort to permanently conceal all ATSAP report content; i.e., the details reported are held in such strict confidence that FAA even tries to hide them from Judges. Despite the fact FAA could easily (and routinely) sanitize the report contents with minimal redactions (similar to the way NASA ASRS reports are slightly altered) and then immediately disclose the amended report, FAA refuses to do so. Thus, when people want to learn from tragic accidents that ATC failed to save, there are no facts to be studied. Instead, we have to wait until months and years later, when a fully sanitized and carefully coordinated story is released by FAA and NTSB.