I’m going to tell you about one of those accidents in which what happened is obvious, but why it happened isn’t, despite what the NTSB says. While two planes were flying close together, one underwent an unexpected maneuver and hit the other. The pilot of the plane that was hit managed to keep it flying and landed safely. The other airplane crashed, killing the pilot. Pretty straightforward until you start looking for the devil in the details and try to understand how one pilot allowed a momentary lapse to take place.
The midair collision took place on April 27, 2014, above San Pablo Bay at Richmond, California. Weather observed at Oakland, about 11 nautical miles southeast of the accident site, was good VFR, with a few clouds at 1,700 feet AGL, and wind from 260 at 15 knots.
The airplane that was hit was a Hawker Sea Fury T Mk.20. This aircraft was manufactured in 1956, and was delivered to the Air Force of Burma in 1957. The Sea Fury’s development began in 1943 to fill the needs of Britain’s Royal Air Force. As World War II was winding down, the RAF decided it no longer needed another single-engine fighter, but the British Royal Navy stepped in to develop it for use on aircraft carriers. The Sea Fury entered service on British ships in 1947. More than 800 were built through the 1950s, and Hawker was refurbishing Sea Fury aircraft at its factory as late as 1959. It was used in the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and remained in military service in various countries into the 1970s.
The airplane had been brought to the U.S., converted to carry a Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engine capable of producing more than 4,000 horsepower and was completely restored to airworthy condition. During the 1980s, it started to be flown in the Reno Air Races. Over the years, it won several prizes at Reno and, in 2006, had a second place finish, reaching more than 453 mph. The operator reported that the airplane had a total airframe time of 6,378 hours at its annual inspection on August 1, 2013. At that time, the engine had just over 85 hours since major overhaul. The Sea Fury was based at Eagle’s Nest Airport, Ione, California.
The Sea Fury was registered to a company specializing in aircraft restorations, as was the other airplane involved in the accident. The second airplane was a Cessna 210E. It also was based at the Eagle’s Nest Airport. The 210E was a high-wing single-engine airplane, manufactured in 1965. It was powered by a Continental IO-520A engine, capable of producing 285 horsepower, and it could be configured with up to six seats. It had a total of 6,384 hours on the airframe at its most recent annual inspection on September 10, 2013, when engine time since major overhaul was 468 hours.
The 33-year-old private pilot was the only person onboard the 210. According to the aircraft’s owner, he was rated for single-engine land airplanes and had a current FAA third-class medical with no limitations or waivers. He also held an airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate. He had 285 flight hours with two in the 30 days before the accident. He had an estimated 37 hours in the 210. His last flight review was on July 26, 2012.
The pilot of the Sea Fury was 52 years old. He held a commercial certificate with ratings for single-engine land, multi-engine land and instrument airplanes. He held a current second-class medical certificate with the limitation that he must have reading glasses. He also held an airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate. He reported a total flight experience of 5,646 hours with 143 hours in Sea Fury airplanes. The pilot and his wife were onboard the two-seat Sea Fury.
Both airplanes had been flown to Half Moon Bay Airport, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, where the Sea Fury had been scheduled for exhibition in the Pacific Coast Dream Machines Show. Using the advertising theme “The Coolest Show on Earth,” the show attracts tens of thousands people for static and aerial displays of warbirds, homebuilts and conventional aircraft, as well displays of roughly 2,000 terrestrial vehicles, motorcycle and tractor shows, food festivals, and concerts. The Sea Fury was there for static display. The pilot of the 210 flew in to accompany the Sea Fury.
The airplanes’ operator submitted a statement to investigators that provided a reconstruction of what happened on the ground and in the air. It said that, while at the exhibition, the pilot of the Sea Fury was approached by a photographer who wanted to take air-to-air photos of it for an aviation magazine. The photographer would be riding in a Beech A36 Bonanza. The photographer, pilot of the Bonanza, and pilots of the Sea Fury and 210 conducted a preflight briefing, during which they decided exactly what would be done during the photo shoot. They decided on the route to fly up the coast from Half Moon Bay Airport to the Golden Gate Bridge where the photos would be taken. Then, the pilot of the 210 and the Sea Fury had their own briefing about how they would rendezvous after the photo shoot, and fly together back to Eagle’s Nest Airport. They decided they would rendezvous east of the Golden Gate Bridge, then fly toward Napa, California, then to Eagle’s Nest Airport.
“The 210 pilot again radioed that he had the Sea Fury in sight. As the Sea Fury got even closer while remaining slightly below and to the left, the 210 pilot radioed, “Oh, that looks beautiful...I’ve got to get a picture of this.” The Sea Fury pilot tried to discourage him with, “You will not have time.” Then, the 210 abruptly entered a roll to the left, exposing the top of the aircraft’s wing.”
To get an expert’s perspective, I talked with Jim Koepnick, a world-class aerial photographer. Thousands of his air-to-air photos have appeared in the aviation press. He’s a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot. Based on what Koepnick told me, the accident pilots seemed to be doing the right things to prepare for the photo shoot and trip home. “We plan everything on the ground. Safety is number one; no picture is worth taking the chance of an accident,” he said. “Once we’re up there, clouds will change, light will change, but we handle changes with small incremental maneuvers. We stay at least two wingspans away from each other. Getting closer is what a telephoto lens is for,” Koepnick added.
At around 3:15 p.m., the pilot and his wife boarded the Sea Fury. They departed Half Moon Bay Airport just before the Bonanza photo ship. After the Bonanza was airborne, the two pilots established radio contact on a predetermined frequency. The Sea Fury and Bonanza joined up as planned, and proceeded to the north at an altitude of 1,000 feet MSL. The plan was for them to approach the Golden Gate Bridge from the west, and make three orbits of the bridge with left turns while maintaining 1,000 feet. According to the statement submitted to the NTSB, while making the second orbit of the bridge, the Sea Fury pilot saw the 210 to the east of the bridge, flying northbound. That was consistent with what the Sea Fury and 210 pilots had planned. After making the third orbit of the bridge, the Bonanza headed south as planned and departed the area.
The Sea Fury pilot then headed northeast. He initiated a shallow climb, while remaining clear of the San Francisco Class B airspace, which has a 3,000 feet floor for the sector around the bridge, rising to 4,000 feet further out. The Sea Fury pilot radioed the 210 pilot on the air-to-air frequency they planned to use, and the 210 pilot gave the Sea Fury pilot his position. A few minutes later, the Sea Fury pilot made visual contact with the 210 just to the north. When the Sea Fury pilot radioed to advise that the 210 was in sight, the 210 pilot responded that he had the Sea Fury in sight. The 210 was at about 150 knots and was below the Class B floor, while the Sea Fury was at about 200 knots and was leveling off to remain under 3,000 feet.
The Sea Fury pilot radioed the 210 pilot that he would cross behind and pass low and outside on the left. The 210 pilot confirmed visual contact by radioing, “I have you in sight.” As the Sea Fury got closer to the 210, it was slightly below and what the operator described as “well behind” the 210. The Sea Fury pilot radioed the 210 pilot that he was low and to his left. The 210 pilot again radioed that he had the Sea Fury in sight. As the Sea Fury got even closer while remaining slightly below and to the left, the 210 pilot radioed, “Oh, that looks beautiful...I’ve got to get a picture of this.” The Sea Fury pilot tried to discourage him with, “You will not have time.” Then, the 210 abruptly entered a roll to the left, exposing the top of the aircraft’s wing. The Sea Fury pilot tried to evade the 210 by pitching down to maintain separation. However, the airplanes collided.
In a subsequent interview with NTSB investigator Howard Plagens, the pilot said he felt that the picture the 210 pilot wanted to take probably would not be good because of the speed differential of the airplanes. He also said that the path he followed in the Sea Fury when approaching the 210 was one he thought would allow adequate separation.
After the collision, the Sea Fury pilot stabilized the airplane, while seeing the 210 inverted. He saw the 210 descend, but did not see it hit the water. He set his transponder on the emergency code 7700 and called NorCal Air Traffic Control TRACON to report the midair collision, issue a Mayday call for the 210 and give the position of the accident. Radio contact with ATC was poor, so the pilot of another aircraft relayed transmissions. The NorCal controller radioed for the pilot to switch to the emergency frequency 121.5, and the Sea Fury pilot declared a Mayday for himself. NorCal told the pilot to contact Stockton Approach on another frequency. Once on the new frequency, Stockton Approach gave the pilot another frequency to try. When there was no response on that frequency, the pilot went back to the original Stockton Approach frequency and then was sent back to a NorCal controller. The NTSB did not provide transcripts of the radio calls with ATC, so we don’t know exactly what was said. We only know what the airplane operator says was said. However, you’d think switching from frequency to frequency is about the last thing a pilot who’s just been involved in a midair collision should be forced to do.
The pilot remained in contact with NorCal. Rather than land at the nearest airport, the Sea Fury pilot decided to continue heading for his home airport because of his familiarity with the field and the fact that it’s in a relatively sparsely populated area. He made a slow climb to 8,000 feet and held approximately 160 knots airspeed. Once over Eagle’s Nest, the pilot held 8,000 feet and maneuvered to determine whether everything looked okay for landing. He made 30 degree left and right turns with the gear down, and then added flaps. He advised ATC that he would attempt a landing, and NorCal phoned for emergency vehicles to head for the airport. Another airplane went aloft from Eagle’s Nest for a visual assessment of the Sea Fury’s condition, which appeared to be okay for a landing attempt.
While making an approach to Runway 19, the pilot had to go around because firefighters were in the middle of the runway. On the second try, the airplane touched down without further incident.
San Francisco police used an underwater camera to locate the 210 in 13 feet of water about 1½ miles from the Richmond, California, shoreline. The fuselage and engine were recovered. The propeller and both wings could not be found.
The Sea Fury’s rudder, vertical and horizontal stabilizers, and elevator were damaged. Sections of the elevator and right horizontal stabilizer were missing. Slash marks appeared to have been made by a propeller. Blue paint from the Cessna was found on the Sea Fury.
The NTSB said the probable cause of this accident was both pilots’ failure to maintain adequate clearance from each other during cruise flight while in visual contact with each other. Contributing to the accident was the unexpected abrupt maneuver made by the Cessna pilot.
There’s no way to tell why the 210 entered the sudden left roll reported by the Sea Fury pilot. Wake turbulence doesn’t seem likely, since the operator’s statement and aircraft damage indicates the Sea Fury was below and behind the 210. Could the pilot have been intent on taking a picture despite the Sea Fury pilot telling him to forget it, and was he trying to get into a better position? Or did he get distracted from flying the airplane while preparing to take a photograph? Could he have maneuvered for some other reason? Could it be that his relatively low time didn’t equip him to properly evaluate the hazard of not doing everything in small increments, with no dramatic maneuvers, when you’re flying close to another aircraft. While it’s good to talk about and plan separation for taking pictures or other formation flying, it’s vital to maintain the discipline that ensures safe flight once you’re at the controls.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, visit www.ntsbreporter.us or write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.