Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

Government advice sometimes is good for everyone, including government

Over the years, you've no doubt heard urgings from various government agencies to always pay careful attention to the weather when you're in flying mode. This begins with at least a rudimentary understanding of meteorology, coupled with detailed preflight weather briefings and periodic in-flight updates. Weather was a key topic for NTSB experts who made presentations during the FAA's Safety Forums at this year's Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Fla. The FAA has been giving prominence to weather issues in some of its current published material. There had been a 10-year government initiative to reduce weather accidents centered around groups most pilots probably never heard of: the Federal Committee for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research, and the National Aviation Weather Program Council. Among other things, they studied the best way to get weather information to pilots, and concluded that the FAA's NextGen ATC modernization program will do the trick. Participants in the National Aviation Weather Program came from the NTSB, NASA, the Department of Commerce, Navy, Air Force, Department of Transportation and Department of Agriculture.

Without denigrating the government's efforts to educate, it's worth noting that NTSB accident reports provide evidence that government itself sometimes needs to pay attention to what it preaches.

Cessna M337B
The Department of Defense had contracted with a private company to have the twin-engine centerline-thrust airplane flown in support of an Air Force Special Operations Command training exercise on November 17, 2010. At about 8:50 p.m., the Cessna M337B crashed near Avon Park, Fla., after its right wing came off. The commercial pilot and two pilot-rated crewmembers were killed. The weather had deteriorated to instrument conditions with hazardous cells embedded. No FAA flight plan was filed for the local flight, which originated at MacDill Air Force Base Auxiliary Field (AGR), at about 7:32.

The Cessna, using call sign "Jedi 21," was in contact with AGR tower at the time of the accident. The tower instructed Jedi 21 to report a two-mile final for runway 5. When Jedi 21 didn't report final, search-and-rescue began. The wreckage was located just after 1 a.m.

The NTSB report didn't provide details about the nature of the training mission being flown or the specific "aerial support" services being provided by the accident airplane. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is involved with the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). USSOCOM is headquartered at MacDill. The idea of a unified special-operations command had its origins in the aftermath of the disastrous attempted rescue of hostages at the American Embassy in Iran in 1980. It has participated in many operations, from the 1989 invasion of Panama to the ongoing War on Terror. It conducts covert and clandestine missions, such as unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, psychological warfare, civil affairs, direct action, counterterrorism and War on Drugs operations.

Several Department of Defense personnel were on the Avon Park Air Force Range at the time of the accident. These persons included range and airspace controllers, a weather forecaster and other flightcrews. An Air Force Staff Sergeant, acting as a primary Restricted Operating Zone (ROZ) controller, reported Jedi 21 checked in on station, and performed its assignment for about an hour, until reporting a "bent sensor." That indicated a technical problem with sensor equipment. About 30 minutes later, another controller received a call from the Cessna, saying they were returning to base. The controller asked why, but received no response. About five minutes after the airplane crashed, an AGR tower controller asked the ROZ controller about the location of Jedi 21. The controller believed at the time that Jedi 21 had landed. About the same time, the weather conditions became severe at AGR with heavy rain and limited visibility.


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