Local News

Answers Sought in Close Calls

Posted February 9, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— Friday night, an American Eagle flight out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport became the second commercial flight to be tailed closely by a military jet in three days. Those passengers and their families, along with the flying public, are waiting for answers.

The Air Force has suspended all of its training flights in the restricted areas along the East Coast, pending a review of rules and operating procedures.

The first close encounter involved a NationAir plane, which dodged two F-16s off the New Jersey coast on Wednesday. The military claims the fighters were trying to identify the civilian planes in a restricted flight area.

Pilots of the civilian planes resorted to suddenly dropping and then regaining altitude in attempts to evade the military jets, as civilian controllers were telling the military controllers to order the military jets away. Still, the F-16 tailed the NationsAir plane for a harrowing two minutes.

Commercial airlines commonly fly in these areas, with proper clearance. Usually they are instructed to fly higher or lower than military aircraft carrying out maneuvers in the same general airspace.

The system has been in place for years, leading Air Force Lt. Gen. (Ret) Robert Springer of Southern Pines to find the close calls surprising and coincidental. He told WRAL-TV5 that it is the coincidence of two events so close together that makes it news, and that perhaps it is the new, highly sophisticated tracking systems on the civilian planes that contributed to the events. Until recently, civilian pilots would not have been aware of other planes being so close.

No one is sure who, if anyone, is at fault in either of the close calls. The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force are all investigating, and will jointly determine if system changes need to be made.