Can the 'Right Stuff' Become the Wrong Stuff?

More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures

Tom Cruise as 'Maverick' was one example of military-aviation cool; Tom Wolfe gave us others in 'The Right Stuff.' (From Top Gun / YouTube)

Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.

The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.


In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)

A few days ago, the National Transportation Safety Board released its “preliminary information” on the episode. I did an item about its most eye-opening part: the transcript of instructions from a controller that the F-16 pilot “turn” and then “turn immediately” to avoid the other plane. Then, in installment #3, I quoted an email from a veteran Air Force pilot who was unhappy that even implicit responsibility was being placed on the F-16 pilot. That was because, according to this older pilot, military flyers were the best in the business; also, he said that because the F-16 was on a “practice instrument approach,” he couldn’t have been expected to be on the lookout for little civilian craft puttering about.

Then I explained why I thought that letter might illustrate a gap in civilian and military mindsets. Within the same little corner of the sky, civilian pilots would have assumed that all aircraft were looking out for others, on a “see and avoid” basis, while a military pilot might have assumed that everyone else should keep out of his way. So could this cultural mismatch have contributed to a tragedy?


Now the discussion continues with the latest crop of notes. A reader who flies for the Army says yes, there is a potentially dangerous military-civilian culture gap in the skies:

I am currently a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army.  Prior to my service, I went to school and received a four year degree in commercial aviation from a premier flight school at [a university well known for its aviation programs].

Having experienced both civilian and military flight training, I can say there are absolutely critical differences between civil and military aviation training.

I have always felt that there were gaps in military flight training that could easily lead to accidents precisely like the F-16 and Cessna crash.

Just recently, during the oral exam for my annual Instrument Flight Evaluation with the most senior instructor pilot in the company (civilian aviators would liken him to a chief pilot), we discussed at length what exactly ‘radar contact’ means and does not mean.  He made repeated comments about how ‘radar contact’ meant that aircraft separation was the controller’s responsibility.  As discussed in your article, this is only true during Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC).  Aircraft separation is still the pilot’s responsibility when flying in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC).  This was lost on the most senior instructor in the company.

In fact, shortly after taking off on an IFR flight plan, the controller advised us of ‘radar contact,’ after which the instructor said (paraphrasing), “Good, now I don't have to worry about anything.”  There was not a cloud in the sky. [JF note: That is, the flight was “IFR in VMC,” which  meant that other aircraft could legally be flying in the same airspace without being in touch with air-traffic control. This is the same circumstance as in the South Carolina case.]

I have seen fundamental lack of understanding of the National Airspace System among Army pilots in particular, including several of the instructors who have attended additional training schools to become “Instrument Examiners.”  Army aviation is in critical need to better integrate itself with civil aviation if we are going to expect our pilots to not repeat this mistake.

I have always believe that the Air Force does a significantly better job of utilizing more current industry standards of training, especially air crew coordination (crew/cockpit resource management to civilians).  Although this particular accident happened to the Air Force this time, I feel that the Army Aviation community is at a far greater risk than the USAF .

Next we hear from a Navy veteran. I’ll explain context for his mention of a “standard rate turn” when that phrase comes up:

As a former Navy FA-18 pilot and now part-time commercial pilot who often operates VFR under and through SF and LA Class B airspace, I think you are spot-on regarding the gap in understanding between military and civilian aviation.

We’ll see what comes out of the investigation, but the F-15 reader [the veteran Air Force pilot I quoted] who thinks it is appropriate for an F-16 pilot that is VMC to respond to ATC’s imperative with a standard rate turn is silly.

[JF note: A “standard rate turn” is a maneuver whose very purpose is to be gradual. It is a turn to the right, or left, at a rate of 3 degrees per second, so that it takes one full minute to complete a 180-degree U-turn course reversal. Standard-rate turns are a normal component of instrument-flight procedures, precisely because when pilots are inside the clouds they want to minimize sudden or dramatic control changes. When the weather is clear, on the other hand, even civilian planes routinely make much sharper turns — for instance, the series of 90-degree turns to the right or the left that make up the rectangular “traffic pattern” for clear-weather landing at airports. The point of this reader’s note is to underscore the difference between a standard rate turn, when you want things to be slow and steady, and the rapid maneuver you would make to avoid imminent danger.]

My survival instinct would have been to add power, roll to 70-90 deg AOB [angle of bank, a very sharp turn] and pull 3G’s to get to the assigned avoidance heading ASAP. That would not have been a problem or uncomfortable at all. Even if I had the landing gear down, there would have been 2G’s available with mil power to quickly turn….  

Thanks for shedding light on this. I hope my former Navy, Marine, Army, and Air Force aviators still on active duty take note. Back to your broader theme of lack of legitimate skepticism of the military by Congress and public, I hope GA [general aviation, or civilian flyers] community doesn’t shy away from putting a spotlight on this incident.  

From another airline pilot who trained as a civilian rather than in the military:

I feel compelled to respond to the letter you received from an Air Force veteran regarding the recent tragedy involving an Air Force F16 and a Cessna 152.

I've flown at least 14,000 hours at three airlines and several previous experience-building jobs. In that time, I've worked with at least 3,000 other pilots from every imaginable background. It's from this perspective that I say this veteran exhibits some of the most dangerous and challenging traits any pilot can exhibit.

Delusions of infallibility, arrogance, defensiveness, and blind deference to rank and regulation over common sense have all been shown, through the history of aviation tragedies, to be much more dangerous than all other factors. This is especially true now that aviation safety challenges have been whittled down to the last consistent issue ... human error.

In countering this letter writers’ assertions, a very strong anecdote can be found in the safety history of the airline I currently work for. All but one incident in our [multi-decade] history has involved at least one former military pilot. In fact, most incident aircraft have had two veterans up front. Even more damning is the fact that most of them have been former fighter pilots. Having said all that, the vast majority of the veterans I fly with are fine airmen and good people. Fortunately, I don't wear a civilian versus military chip on my shoulder, apparently unlike the letter writer.

A reader who is familiar with the same small South Carolina airport from which the Cessna departed wrote with several questions about the incident. He ended with this:

I learned to fly at the airport in Moncks Corner, and did a lot of flying in the area where this collision occurred.  I have also flown many times as safety pilot with people practicing instrument approaches into Charleston.  I believe your analysis based on the information currently available is correct…

The only time I've heard “immediately” from an air traffic controller was on a training flight.  My instructor took over (“MY PLANE”), and executed a sharp turn to the requested course.  After that, there was never any doubt in my mind about the meaning of “immediately”.

For what it’s worth, my experience is similar:

From our several-hundred hours of flight time for our American Futures travels these past two years, I can remember only one “turn immediately” moment. This was about two months ago, in California. We were coming up the Central Valley toward Hayward, a very busy general-aviation airport on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. As we crossed over a ridge toward San Jose (while getting “flight following” advisories from air traffic control, on a clear-weather Visual Flight Rules trip) we heard a controller reeling off non-stop instructions to airliners descending into SFO. Then he broke off to tell me, “traffic twelve o’clock, two miles, opposite direction, same altitude, type unknown. If not in sight, make immediate right turn to heading…”

Before he had finished giving the heading number I had slammed the control stick to the right and begun what was, for our airplane, a steep 45-degree bank away from where the other aircraft might be. (It turned out to be a glider.) The point is, for civilian flyers “immediate” gets your attention, immediately.

Also from a civilian pilot:

I learned about listening to controllers carefully even before I learned to fly; oddly enough, from a scene in Arthur Hailey's book Airport. (You'll know the scene if you read the book). [Yes]

I remember once flying SW from the St. Paul downtown airport IFR, hearing a controller give me a vector for traffic with some urgency in his voice, and doing one of the quickest and sharpest turns I'd ever done in my life (no doubt it helped that I had headphones and could hear the urgency in his voice). I saw the traffic during the turn and it was indeed too close for comfort. The controller pretty clearly had not seen the conflict until uncomfortably late and was quite concerned about it.

I had about 300 hours at that point in my career. But I knew enough to turn right away and to get my head out of the cockpit


These previous messages are about the risks that culture, or procedures, or habits, or mindset might or might not be able to mitigate. Two more on elements of luck or fate. First:

Something that has not been brought up yet, as far as I can see, is the visual geometry of the collision.

The crash scene suggests the F16 “ran over” the 150: damage to the underside of the fighter, with crush damage on the top of the 150. Given the nose geometry of the F16, it is entirely possible the 150 was hiding under the F16's nose cone. Whether the fighter pilot was heads up or down may be a moot point.


Another way to look at this is that ATC [air traffic control] unintentionally guided that F-16 like a missile for a direct hit on the tiny target of the Cessna. If the controller had given the left turn request just a second earlier or a second later, the only damage would have been three men in desperate need of clean pants to wear.

It makes me wonder if there is in fact any blame to be had? In aviation we eschew the hand of God when an accident occurs and study all the human, weather, design and mechanical factors to discover just what lead up to the event, assess blame, and then suggest regulatory, training, and/or operational changes to prevent future occurrences.

Yet when we are moments from disaster and manage to just barely pull our butt out of the fire, with no harm done, we cry out “Thank God!" And absent some possible report nothing more is made of this close encounter of the deadly kind. Why? Because we accept that God, plain dumb luck, or other divine force was with us that day.

And so perhaps it was that no matter what humans, did or failed to do, this tragedy was, for lack of a better term, and to insure maximum blowback, preordained. After all the Cessna pilot could have departed one second earlier or one second later and and be alive today.

Think for a moment if the F-16 pilot, the Cessna pilot, and ATC all agreed on a plan to guide the F-16 into the Cessna. Got the picture? They are all in collusion on a collision and have but one pass to make this happen. Do they succeed? Probably not. In fact not even close.

So do the NTSB investigation. Assess the various faults. Retrain pilots and controllers. Publish lessons learned. In fact dissect this down to the rivets on the Cessna. But nothing can change the fact that on that day, at that moment, the cards were dealt and destiny was the dealer.

This reader doesn’t say so but I am sure he is familiar with one of the aviation books that also stays with me: Fate Is the Hunter, by Ernest K. Gann. It is a memoir of military and civilian flying that emphasizes this unknowable, terrifying-to-contemplate role of blind luck in matters of life and death. A moment’s difference in timing here, a tiny difference in spacing there, and an episode that was merely frightening could have been disastrous, or vice versa. The NTSB is not allowed to include “fate” in its findings, but I’m sure its investigators have reflected upon fate’s role.