The National Transportation Safety Board has released its preliminary findings regarding an investigation of a mid-air collision that killed the pilot and passenger of a small Cessna aircraft after it was struck by an F-16.
The report said on July 7, an F-16CM, piloted by Maj. Aaron Johnson from the 55th Fighter Squadron, departed from Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter at 10:20 a.m and was heading to the Charleston Air Force Base. Meanwhile, Michael Johnson, 68, and his 30-year-old son Joseph Johnson departed from the Berkeley County Airport at 10:57 a.m. in a Cessna 150M – a single engine, two-seat aircraft – and were traveling to the Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach.
As the F-16 pilot began to approach the Myrtle Beach International Airport, he conducted two practice instrument approaches before continuing the flight to the Charleston base. After the pilot contacted air-traffic control at the Charleston base to request permission to carry out the practice approaches, an air-traffic controller instructed the pilot to “descend from his present altitude of 6,000 feet to 1,600 feet. At that time, the F-16 was located about 34 nautical miles northeast of (Charleston Air Force Base),” according to the report.
The report said at “1057:41, a radar target displaying a visual flight rules transponder code of 1200, and later correlated to be the accident Cessna, appeared in the vicinity of the departure end of runway 23,” which was where the F-16 pilot was instructed to fly to carry out his practice approach. The Cessna continued to climb in altitude for the next three minutes. During the flight, the Cessna pilot did not contact Charleston air-traffic control, but he was not required to do so.
“At 1100:18, the controller advised the pilot of the F-16, ‘traffic 12 o’clock, 2 miles, opposite direction, 1,200 [feet altitude] indicated, type unknown,’” the report said. “The F-16 pilot responded and advised the controller that he was ‘looking’ for the traffic. At 1100:26, the controller advised the F-16 pilot, ‘turn left heading 180 if you don't have that traffic in sight.’ The pilot responded by asking, ‘confirm 2 miles?’ Eight seconds later, the controller stated, ‘if you don't have that traffic in sight turn left heading 180 immediately.’ Over the next 18 seconds, the track of the F-16 began turning southerly[SIC].”
The report said at 11 a.m., radar tracked the F-16 flying at 1,500 feet, while the Cessna continued to fly in the opposite direction at 1,400 feet. Air traffic control advised the F-16 pilot that there was traffic passing below him at 1,400 feet. A few seconds later, radar indicated the F-16 to remain at 1,500 feet, but there was “no valid altitude information was returned for the radar target associated with the Cessna.”
The two aircraft collided at about 11 a.m. above Berkeley County killing both Michael and Joseph Johnson. The report said after flying for three minutes following the collision, the pilot ejected from the F-16, which crashed near the Cooper River. The pilot of the F-16 was recovered shortly after ejecting from the aircraft and did not sustain any life-threatening injuries.
NTSB officials said they are continuing to investigate the collision, and the facts of their report are subject to change.