Government admits liability in 2015 F-16 collision with plane

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The federal government has admitted the "actions and omissions of its employees" were the cause of the collision of a Cessna and an Air Force F-16 near Moncks Corner on July 7, 2015. Father and son Michael Johnson, 68, and Joe Johnson, 30, were killed in the collision, while the pilot of the F-16, Maj. Aaron Johnson of the 55th Fighter Squadron, ejected from his aircraft and landed safety with only minor injuries. He was quickly transported to Shaw Air Force Base, where his squadron is stationed.

The admission comes in response to a wrongful death and damage claim lawsuit filed in April by families of the victims. The government's admission is limited and does not address specifics of who is to blame for the tragedy.

James Brauchle, an attorney for the families, said it is the first time the government has accepted responsibility for the incident.

"For the family, this is the first time that they heard that the government is accepting responsibility, and it has been a couple of years now," he said. "It has been trying on them."

Brauchle said the family was pleased the government did not try to pin blame on Joe Johnson, who was piloting the Cessna at the time of the collision.

"They shouldn't have, but the fact that they didn't was good for the family," he said.

The collision occurred only 4 minutes after the Cessna lifted off from Berkeley County Airport at 10:57 a.m., July 7, 2015. The complaint states that the Cessna became visible to air traffic control 41 seconds later at an altitude of 200 feet. The details in the complaint were not challenged in the government's response.

For the next 3 minutes, the Cessna began climbing and tracking in an easterly direction, passing 1,000 feet at 8 seconds later, the complaint said.

A few minutes earlier, at 10:52 a.m., the F-16, with the handle "Death41," contacted air traffic control for permission to practice a tactical air navigation system instrument approach to runway 15 at Charleston International Airport. Three minutes later, the air traffic controller instructed the F-16 pilot to descend to 1,600 feet.

According to the complaint, the ATC radar system issued a visual and aural conflict alert between the two aircraft at 11:00:13 a.m. Then seconds later, the controller transmitted, "Death41, traffic twelve o'clock two-mile opposite direction one thousand two hundred, indicated type unknown."

Twelve seconds later (11:00:24), the F-16 pilot responded: "Death41 looking."

At 11:00:26 the controller transmitted, "41 turn left heading 180 if you don't have that traffic in sight."

The pilot responded: "confirm two miles?"

At 11:00:34 the controller transmitted: "Death41, if you do not have traffic in sight turn left heading one eight zero immediately."

The F-16 began a gradual turn to the south. Radar reported the F-16 at 1,500 feet, 100 feet below its assigned altitude, the complaint said. The Cessna was not in contact with the ATC and was not required to be, according to an Air Traffic Safety Commission report.

At 11:00, the F-16 struck the Cessna, slicing it in half, the complaint states.

The Cessna crashed near the Cooper River, the complaint said, and the two occupants were killed.

The complaint alleges the controller never issued any conflict or safety alert to the pilot and failed to render proper "appropriate radar services" to the aircraft.

Brauchle said that with the government's admission of liability, the details of the incident are now moot as far as the lawsuit is concerned, and the only remaining issue is the amount of damages.

Since the time of the collision, the National Traffic Safety Board has issued a report that uses the incident as an example of the limits of the "see-and-avoid" strategy and suggested air traffic control and air traffic be equipped with better cockpit technology to avoid collisions.

"We want to highlight the limitations of the see-and-avoid concept and call attention to the alternatives," NTSB spokesman Peter Knudsen said after the release of the report. "There are affordable options for pilots to install equipment that can help avoid such incidents."

In the report, board investigator Dennis Diaz said the controller told investigators she had thought the Cessna would stay within its Moncks Corner local traffic pattern but realized it was climbing and a crash was possible.

The report said the F-16 and the Cessna "were not equipped with any traffic display or alert technologies" that would have avoided the crash. The tactical radar system aboard the F-16 did not detect the Cessna, the report said.