Military, agencies probe encounter between F-16s, 727
Passenger jet avoided collision over AtlanticFebruary 7, 1997
Web posted at: 2:20 p.m. EST
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ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey (CNN) -- The New Jersey Air National Guard, the Navy and a small passenger airline gave differing accounts Friday of a close encounter between two F- 16 fighters and a commercial jet over the Atlantic Ocean two days ago.
The military, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating why one of two National Guard F-16s flew close enough to a Nations Air Boeing 727 to set off collision alarms on the passenger plane three times.
The Nations Air jet dove several thousand feet before climbing again to avoid a collision. Two flight attendants, as well as a passenger returning from the bathroom, were thrown to the floor.
The charter flight carrying 77 passengers and seven crew members from San Juan, Puerto Rico, landed as scheduled Wednesday afternoon at New York's Kennedy International Airport, where the pilot reported the encounter.
"There's two reasons why this happened," Nations Air President Mark McDonald said Thursday. "Either the (National Guard) pilots screwed up or they were playing games with our airplane and they got caught."
But the New Jersey Air National Guard said the commercial jet was never in danger and that the F-16 pilots simply were checking on an unidentified plane about 70 miles off the coast, in an area frequently used for military training. The area measures roughly 9,000 square miles.
"The pilots neither screwed up, nor were they having fun. They were acting professional. They were on a training mission," National Guard Col. Thomas Griffin told NBC Friday.
"They were faced with a situation where there was a nonparticipating aircraft that would be a hazard to their mission, they would be a hazard to that aircraft, and they investigated it. And they did that very properly," he said.
The incident occurred after a Navy air traffic control center cleared the unarmed military aircraft to fly into the military training area, called Warning Area 107.
McDonald said his airline had clearance to fly through the airspace, and a Navy spokesman, Capt. Mike John, backed up the airline's claim. John told The New York Times that Navy controllers had warned the fighter pilots that civilian planes were in the area. John said the pilots acknowledged receiving the warning.
However, Griffin, commander of the 177th Fighter Group of the New Jersey Air National Guard, gave a slightly different account. Griffin said the two military planes already had encountered the civilian 727 by the time Navy air controllers alerted them to its presence.
"Our aircraft were cleared into the area by the Navy controller. At the time ... there was no discussion of any other aircraft in the area," he said.
"As they were starting to maneuver, the lead aircraft detected on his own airborne radar that there was another aircraft which he did not expect to be there."
The pilot of the lead F-16 fighter, Griffin said, "ordered his wingman to go to another part of the area to stay clear while he investigated to determine who the aircraft was and what its intentions were and if (it) was actually leaving the airspace."
As the lead F-16 pilot approached the 727, Griffin said, "the Navy controller came up a second time and directed (the F-16 pilot) to maneuver south of the area to stay clear of that airplane. That's the only advisories our pilots got about the (civilian) aircraft."
Asked about reports that Navy controllers frantically radioed the National Guard pilots to "break off, break off," Griffin said the two F-16s never received any such command. But he said an ongoing investigation may show that the command might have been sent on a radio frequency the pilots were not using.
When the encounter occurred, the commercial pilot radioed for help, saying his radar showed another plane was as close as 400 feet. FAA controllers told the pilot that the F-16s were so close that their radar image had merged with the 727's image, and they could give no advice, The Times reported.
National Guard officials said the lead F-16 jet and the Nations Air plane were no closer than 1,000 feet.
Nations Air is a small charter airline based in Smyrna, Georgia. It once offered scheduled service but has flown only domestic and international charter flights for at least a year, McDonald said.
Correspondent Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.
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