Thunderbird Pilots, FAA Grilled
On Possible Violations
by David Fulghum
Aviation Week & Space Technology
05/25/00 07:20:50 PM U.S. EDT
U.S. Air Force Thunderbird flight demonstration pilots and FAA air controllers are being grilled about what went wrong when the eight-aircraft team left Andrews AFB near Washington, D.C. in poor visibility last week.
The team may have over flown the vice president’s residence, breached controlled airspace at Dulles Airport and came too near two civilian aircraft before being redirected into a safe area above the cloud cover during the May 22 incident.
Pentagon officials said possible violations were the result of a string of small errors that created a big problem. The Thunderbirds team wanted to leave Andrews in an eight-lane group, but the flight plan wasn’t accepted by the FAA’s computer. Subsequently they were told to make a radar-assisted trail departure with each pilot being responsible for staying in radar contact with the aircraft immediately ahead.
The pilots were instructed to take off one at a time, turn west within three mi. of Andrews, climb to 3,000 ft. within 8 mi. and keep a 7 mi. separation between the first and last aircraft in the group while adhering to instrument flying rules. Only the first and last aircraft in the line were told to have their transponders on.
The FAA controller gave the team’s lead pilot (T-1) “rapid...multiple heading changes” after which the last four aircraft (T-5, T-6, T-7 and T-8) began to drift away from the unit leader’s line of flight without his knowledge, said Capt. Guy Hunneyman, a member of the Thunderbirds unit at Nellis AFB, Nev. The fifth pilot in line lost contact with the fourth and became “slightly disoriented” creating a cascading effect that may also have led those behind him away from the main group, he said. T-6 stayed in radar contact with T-5, but T-5, T-7 and T-8 lost contact.
FAA controllers realized something was wrong and that some of the aircraft were off the assigned course. But initially they gave flight corrections to the fourth plane in the flight rather than to the fifth who led the straying aircraft.
“The air controller was overwhelmed at one point, but finally figured it out and got everyone together at a safe altitude,” a senior Pentagon official said. One aircraft was traveling toward the Blue Ridge mountains at 3,000 ft., too low to clear them, “but he was never in any significant danger,” the Pentagon official said. “Two of the F-16s may have flown through Dulles airspace and broke minimum separation [requirement] with an American Airlines aircraft.”
FAA analysts claim there were in fact violations of its regulations. Two of the F-16s came within 100 ft. vertically and 1.83 naut. mi. horizontally of a single engine Mooney private aircraft and 700 ft. vertically and .9 naut. mi. horizontally of an American Airlines MD-80, said William Shumann, a FAA official. Separation minimums are 1,000 ft. vertically or three naut. mi. vertically.
“There is no radar plot showing that any prohibited airspace was violated, either over the Vice President’s house or at Dulles Airport” or that they came close to other aircraft, a second Pentagon official said. “ However, if you drew a line from where they took off to where they ended up, you could surmise they might have.” The team eventually reformed west of Dulles.
Shumann says there is radar data available from Dulles showing two F-16s flying too near the civilian aircraft. Moreover, “there is a reasonable inference that T-5 and T-6 [the two F-16s] either violated prohibited air space [over the vice president’s home] or flew near it.” A transcript of conversations with the Thunderbird’s team leader shows the FAA controller giving him three course changes around the prohibited air space.
FAA officials also are concerned that the off-course aircraft were late in turning on their transponders once it was obvious there was a problem. They fault T-5 and T-6 for breaking federal air regulations and are puzzled that T-8 ended up over Fredericksburg about 40 mi. south of Washington, while T-7 was approaching a 3,474 ft. peak near Front Royal, Va. about 50 mi. west of Washington. The cloud ceiling was at 1,200 ft. so the vision of team pilots were obscured, FAA reports confirm.
“The Air Force will review the incident and adjust procedures so it won’t happen again,” the first Pentagon official said. Meanwhile, there is to be no change in the team members or its schedule of performances, Hunneyman said.