Midair Collision Between a Cirrus and a Helicopter, at the controlled airport in Frederick, MD

(click on the image to view the WJLA news video)

Helicopter crash debris at a storage facility. (click on the image to view the WJLA news video)

Three died when a midair collision happened between a fixed-wing arrival and a helicopter, in the traffic pattern at the controlled airport in Frederick, Maryland [KFDK]. The fixed-wing aircraft was a Cirrus; it had departed in the morning and was just finishing a three-hour flight, returning from Cleveland, TN.

At the time, three helicopters were training in a lower flight pattern, underneath the fixed-wing arrival traffic pattern. The helicopters apparently are part of a training program at Advanced Helicopter Concepts, and are based near the south end of the airport. One of them, a Robinson R44 helicopter, collided with the Cirrus. Just seconds before, the controller had reported the Cirrus in sight and told him to maintain his altitude, with the apparent intent being to keep the Cirrus a few hundred feet above the helicopters. It appears that the Cirrus was just establishing midfield on the left downwind leg to Runway 30, while the helicopter was midfield downwind for a grass practice area, when the collision occurred.

Here is a copy of the satellite image for KFDK. The collision happened near the added orange circle, as the two aircraft crashed at the left red square (helicopter) and right red square (Cirrus). The Cirrus was on a left downwind, setting up to land on Runway 30 (the shorter runway, from the right edge to the top-middle of this aerial). 20141023.. KFDK airport sat view, marking 2 crash locationsA closer look shows the helicopter crash location at the storage lot (small red circle) and the Cirrus crash location in trees just southeast of the large building (larger yellow circle).20141023.. KFDK sat view, marking two debris locations
Weather was likely not a factor. As indicated by the METAR data copied below, clouds were high (above 4,000-feet all day), visibility was always at least ten miles, and the temperature and dew point was always comfortable. The most notable weather detail were relatively strong — but also fairly steady — winds out of the north-northwest.

Time temp dew wind speed vis. clouds alti.
23 Oct 11:48 am EDT 63 43 NNW 20G25 10.00 BKN040 29.94
23 Oct 12:45 pm EDT 64 45 NNW 13G29 10.00 BKN040 29.92
23 Oct 1:45 pm EDT 66 45 10.00 BKN042 29.91
23 Oct 2:45 pm EDT 66 45 N 17G23 10.00 BKN044 29.90
23 Oct 3:37 pm EDT Accident
23 Oct 3:53 pm EDT 66 45 NNW 18G24 10.00 SCT048 29.91
23 Oct 5:45 pm EDT 70 43 NNW 8 10.00 BKN060 29.89
23 Oct 7:45 pm EDT 68 39 NNW 10 10.00 OVC060 29.92

As is clear from the ATC archive at LiveATC.net, this accident happened while the tower controller was using Runway 30. [CAUTION: this archived ATC recording includes screams just after the impact.] [Transcript copy (by aiREFORM)] Based on ATC transmissions, the flights were likely 700- to 1,000-feet above the ground when they collided. The Cirrus’ parachute system deployed, and almost certainly saved the lives of the two on that aircraft.

One thing not yet clear is how ATC at Frederick manages their flight patterns for helicopter training. The flight patterns for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft can conflict dangerously. So, the management at each air traffic control tower has to sit down with airport operators and devise workable plans, to help ‘de-conflict’ the traffic flows. These traffic flow plans are then made official (and signed by the parties, such as the helicopter training company) as letters of agreement or memoranda of understanding. At airports with helicopter training programs, the best strategy is to keep the helicopters flying in one area, and keep all the fixed-wing airplanes away. But, more commonly, there is a need to stuff the helicopter training pattern in underneath the fixed-wing pattern. In any case, the controllers need to be especially vigilant to protect those higher risk areas where the different patterns cross.

Here are some links:


An Actual Midair Between a Helicopter and a Cessna at San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport, on May 9, 1999

Below is a copy of a news article about a San Jose midair collision on a Sunday morning in May 1999. This collision was literally inches short of a midair fireball, with debris raining down onto houses and a park, where hundreds were gathered for Sunday soccer matches.

There were three critical FAA failures in this incident:

  • First, the supervisor working the aircraft failed to issue necessary traffic to ensure the pilots would see and avoid each other.
  • Second, the FAA management failed to develop de-conflicted traffic patterns, and knowingly allowed excessively busy flight operations where helicopters and fixed-wing flights would be unavoidably in dangerously close proximity.
  • And third, once the May 9, 1999 midair collision happened, FAA management (Supervisor Roberto Aranda, Tower Manager Paul Pagel, and likely un-named higher officials in the Hub and Regional offices) knowingly concealed facts and failed to notify NTSB. FAA management had a requirement to notify NTSB, so that an investigation could be conducted, to help improve aviation system safety.

Here is the article (highlights added by aiREFORM.com)…20000124.. SJMercury article on 5-9-99 RHV midair_120000124.. SJMercury article on 5-9-99 RHV midair_220000124.. SJMercury article on 5-9-99 RHV midair_3

Two of the controllers at the FAA tower at Reid-Hillview Airport spoke up, when they saw that the tower management was sweeping the accident (and controller error) under the rug. We (Jeff Lewis and Don Hiebert) both repeatedly questioned the supervisor, Roberto Aranda, who repeatedly blew off our concerns and claimed that management was still waiting for ‘metallurgical tests’.

Here is a portion of a draft memo I had compiled, to issue to Mr. Aranda. I never gave him a copy; I was fearful of the repercussions if I were to be that aggressive in speaking up for aviation safety. So, eight months after the midair, it was a surprise to me when the news story appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
19990512.. clip re NTSB reporting, from DRAFT memo to KRHV Sup.Aranda, re 5-9-1999 midair

So, Did NTSB Ever Do an Investigation?

No. FAA did not notify NTSB, and instead investigated this incident internally.

Instead, the limited data collected by an FAA investigator was compiled into the FAA’s in-house Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS). Here is the event description from the Cessna N9568G ASIAS report (underlines added by aiREFORM.com):

19990509.. N9568G ASIAS report, screencap of narrative


I wanted to determine which online databases included reports related to the May 9, 1999 Reid Hillview midair collision. I soon established that there are three major databases, all accessible using these links:

 NTSB:  http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/month.aspx
 ASIAS-AIDS: http://www.asias.faa.gov/pls/apex/f?p=100:12:0::NO:12::
 NASA ASRS: http://akama.arc.nasa.gov/ASRSDBOnline/QueryWizard_Filter.aspx

While researching the three major accident/incident databases, I came across numerous collisions, but three others seemed to best illustrate the failure by FAA to act on the Reid Hillview midair. Below, I have compiled details of each of the four total incidents. Three are midair collisions (including the 5/9/1999 KRHV midair), and one is a ground collision. For all of these incidents (except the KRHV midair collision) the incident was promptly reported to NTSB, and then investigated by a non-FAA agency. Here are short summaries:

  1. On 5/16/1998, two flight instruction aircraft based at the same KRHV FBO collided midair near the uncontrolled airport in Hollister, CA [KCVH]. A departing light twin and an arriving single-prop were both able to safely land at the airport after their left wingtips had collided .
    FAA employees created no record within the ASIAS-AIDS database. None of the four pilots filed a report with the ASRS. But, at least one pilot must have complied with AIM Para. 7-6-2, as NTSB did investigate. They created  a detailed Full Narrative Report for Incident LAX98LA164A.
  2. On 5/26/1998, a ground collision happened at the controlled airport in Lincoln, NE [KLNK]. ATC cleared both single-engine aircraft to land: a Christian Eagle (taildragger) was cleared for Runway 14, while a Mooney was cleared for Runway 17L. ATC issued taxi instructions and a hold-short of Runway 17L to the Eagle, then instructed the landed Mooney to turn left at the same location. The Mooney turned and stopped, then ATC told the Eagle to move ahead. This caused a collision because the taildragger pilot had to taxi with S-turns and could not see the position of the Mooney. The Eagle’s propeller sliced the elevator of the Mooney, but there were no injuries.
    FAA employees created no record within the ASIAS-AIDS database. None of the four pilots filed a report with the ASRS. But, either ATC or at least one of the two pilots must have complied with AIM Para. 7-6-2, as NTSB did investigate. They created  a detailed Full Narrative Report for Incident CHI98LA177A.
  3. On 5/9/1999, the concealed midair at KRHV:
    FAA employees created a record within the in-house ASIAS-AIDS, and (1) ASRS was filed by the Cessna pilot (no filings by helo or ATC). Nobody submitted the mandatory notification to NTSB.
  4. On 5/30/1999, a Cessna Skyhawk and a motorglider collided in midair while in the pattern for the controlled airport in Mesa, AZ [KFFZ]. The Cessna was flying left closed traffic to Runway 04L. The motorglider called ATC and got a takeoff clearance off Runway 04R and advised he wanted to stay in the pattern. ATC told the motorglider to extend upwind, and also told him to follow the Cessna ahead and to his left. In hindsight, it appears the pilot looked over and saw another Cessna entering the downwind and turned to follow him. Thus, the motorglider ended up slightly in front of the Cessna, then was run over by the Cessna in the downwind. Both aircraft were damaged but able to make runway landings.
    FAA employees created no record within the ASIAS-AIDS database. None of the three pilots filed a report with the ASRS. But, either ATC or at least one of the three pilots must have complied with AIM Para. 7-6-2, as NTSB did investigate. They created  a detailed Full Narrative Report for Incident LAX99LA204A.