Fighters fly close to jetliner off O.C. 2nd incident prompts Air Force to curtail training off East Coast

February 08, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Tom Bowman | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After a second incident in three days involving military fighters coming "too close" to a civilian jetliner -- this time off Ocean City -- the Air Force suspended its operations in designated training areas off the East Coast last night.

The suspension came after the pilot of an American Eagle turboprop plane reported that fighter jets appeared to come too close to his plane as it flew 10 to 15 miles off the Maryland coast yesterday. It was the second complaint this week against military fighters in the busy skies over the Atlantic.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Pentagon said they knew of no safety regulations that had been violated in yesterday's incident. Nevertheless, they said they needed time to investigate.

The suspension will last until all active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard units in the area have reviewed their training procedures with the Federal Aviation Administration and other air traffic control agencies.

"The Air Force is taking this action as a precaution to ensure that all procedures are sound and to prevent any compromise of safety," the Air Force said in a statement last night.

The incident yesterday involved an American Eagle commuter plane, flying from Raleigh, N.C., to New York's Kennedy International Airport, and four F-16 fighters of the D.C. Air National Guard, based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

The planes came within 2,000 feet of one another, causing the American Eagle pilot to radio an air traffic controller in Leesburg, Va., to report that at least one fighter appeared to be too close. The jetliner's pilot saw no need to take evasive action.

"He was just talking to the air traffic controller, and he thought probably the jet was too close," said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman. "To our knowledge, there was not an inherent danger here."

American Eagle referred all media questions to the FAA.

In the first incident, on Wednesday, two F-16s of the New Jersey Air National Guard approached so close to a Nations Air Boeing 727 that the pilot dived to avoid a possible collision, throwing two flight attendants and a passenger to the floor.

Maj. Gen. Donald W. Shepperd, director of the Air National Guard, said yesterday that both incidents were being investigated, but added, "There is no indication anyone was engaged in a maneuver that was improper at this point."

Although the two incidents appeared to be unconnected, Shepperd said, "We will certainly look at both for commonality." There are hundreds of thousands of flights over the East Coast of the United States, Shepperd said, "and very few incidents."

The pilots of the four F-16s in yesterday's incident were aware of one another and of the American Eagle plane, Shepperd said.

The F-16 Fighting Falcons, from the 113th Wing of the D.C. Air National Guard, were conducting flight operations in an area known as Warning 108, said Maj. Mike Milord, a spokesman for the D.C. Air National Guard. They were unaware of the complaint against them until they returned to base.

"Nothing happened as far as we can tell," Milord said. "There's no unsafe operation."

Milord said all the F-16s maintained the mandatory distance from the American Eagle, with one plane 1,000 feet away and another 2,000 feet away.

The mandatory minimum distance for visual contact is 500 feet ** vertically. Their maneuvers, which generally last two to three hours, had ended, and they were heading back.

"They saw the plane when it was farther than two miles out," Milord said. "The Eagle guy reported something to the FAA."

The D.C. Air National Guard has 15 F-16 jets and operates five to six days a week in a variety of training areas, Milord said. He couldn't recall a similar incident in his five years with the Guard.

Spitaliere, the FAA spokeswoman, said there was no indication that the American Eagle's collision warning system had sounded. That system -- Traffic Collision Alarm System -- gives a voice command when a plane gets too close, alerting a pilot to climb or descend.

In the incident Wednesday off Atlantic City, the alarm did sound, causing the pilot to take avoiding action.

The two F-16s that triggered the alarm were on an exercise in which one tries to intercept the other, said Shepperd, of the Air National Guard.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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