FAA listens to ‘near-collision’ recordings

PACAF says their planes were not involved

A Federal Aviation Administration investigator has listened to the tapes confirming the details of a reported “near-collision” between civilian and military aircraft last Wednesday afternoon. Meanwhile, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces have essentially said their planes were not involved in this incident, which saw two unidentified military C-130s coming directly at and passing within 300 feet of a Star Marianas twin-engine plane.

Saipan Tribune learned yesterday that the Saipan airport control tower recordings will leave little doubt that the military planes were already in Delta, or commercial, airspace before they made the attempt to call the Saipan airport tower.

An FAA investigation will reveal that the civilian pilot could be heard talking to the Saipan tower, telling them of the approaching planes, it was gathered. In the background, the military can be heard trying to call the tower, but not on a civilian frequency.

The civilian pilot has since been identified as Star Marianas director of flight operations Robert Christian. The military planes and pilots, believed to be a part of last month’s Cope North exercise, have not been identified.

Asked for details on the investigation, FAA public affairs manager Ian Gregor said yesterday that FAA is looking into the reported event. “We do not comment on pending investigations or reviews,” he said.

Meantime, the U.S. Air Force essentially cleared themselves of involvement in the reported event last week, when asked for comment.

According to Col. Dave Honchul, on the evening of Feb. 25, two C-130s departed Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, at 5:30pm, and were in the vicinity of Tinian at approximately 6pm.

“The pilots flying those aircraft followed established radio procedures in contacting both Common Traffic Advisory Frequency and the Saipan tower,” he said. This included the required calls for clearance to transit the airspace in question. “The C-130 crews were aware of the general aviation traffic at all times both visually and through the onboard Traffic Collision Advisory System,” he said.

“The airmen remained visually clear of the traffic, maintaining at least a one mile lateral separation, in accordance with Visual Flight Rules. At no time did the TCAS indicate a hazardous situation.”

Conchul said when there is a question of flight safety, an aircrew files a Hazardous Air Traffic Report, or HATR, with the Federal Aviation Administration for further investigation, but in this case, “our crews did not file a report, believing the transit was conducted in a safe manner.”

“At this time, the FAA at Guam has not given us any indications a HATR has been filed by others. Should one be filed, we will fully support them in their investigation.”

Presented with details of Honchul’s comment, Christian said that Honchul’s report “happened much later” than the incident he had reported around 5pm last Wednesday.

Christian pointed out in order for “near-miss” report to be filed with the FAA, the involved planes have to be within 500 feet. He said FAA would look into whether either parties agree or disagree with the reported details.

But he added this proves a problem because the CNMI right now does not have radar covering anything below 4000 feet, unlike Guam which does have this equipment.

He said verifying the event would rely on pilot reports, because of the lack of radar.

In a separate interview, Star Marianas president Shaun Christian urged an “open dialogue” with the military to prevent such events.

He said their intention is not to raise this issue into a trial, or a formal court type event, where pilots get their ranked pulled, for example.

“This is more or less trying to get the military, FAA, and the airlines operating in this area together at the table to make sure a good, open dialogue in the future when these activities are occurring,” he said.

“The issues that we have and what we continue to have is there is absolutely no preplanning or pre-coordination,” save a couple of instances, “where we’ve had any other discussion with any military officials as to what they are doing, what their plans are, or what they’re going to be doing.”

“There is very little upfront planning and coordination—no seeming interest on the part of the military to try to understand what weldings we’re using, what altitudes we are flying at or anything else,” the president said.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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