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DoD News Briefing: Major General Donald W. Shepperd

Presenter: Major General Donald W. Shepperd
February 07, 1997 5:30 PM EDT

General Shepperd: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

I'm Major General Donald W. Shepperd (http://www.af.mil/pa/biographies/shepperd_dw.html -- no longer available). I'm Director of the Air National Guard . I'm stationed here in the Pentagon, and I'm in charge of the Air National Guard units in the United States. We have approximately 110,000 people; approximately 1,200 airplanes in all the 54 states and territories.

I'd like to respond to your questions that you may have regarding the incident that took place earlier in New Jersey, and I will respond to your questions involving the incident as we know it, and also the investigation that's underway.

I'd also like to tell you that we've received information that there was another unconnected incident this afternoon that occurred approximately 2 p.m. that we have under investigation with preliminary information.

It involved a flight of four F-16 aircraft out of the 113th Fighter Wing at Andrews Air Force Base [Md.] that was operating on a normal training mission in Warning Area 108 off the East Coast, which is their normal training area. It was a flight of four aircraft and the number four aircraft was lower on fuel than the rest of the aircraft. The flight lead directed him to depart the area and proceed toward home.

At the same time, the other three aircraft terminated their mission, joined up, and they were all departing the area. The number one, two, and three aircraft were under radar control of Washington Center at 20,000 feet. They were informed of an American Eagle aircraft, and they had radar contact with this aircraft and they also had visual contact with this aircraft. They then decided to rejoin the number four aircraft with their flight. The number four aircraft was in front of them. He was approximately 17,000 feet. He was also aware of the American Eagle flight and had the American Eagle flight in sight.

The information we have at this time, which is preliminary information, is that the three F-16s passed over the American Eagle flight and later rejoined with the number four aircraft and proceeded on to Andrews. There was no imminent collision. All four of the F-16s had the airliner in sight. I would like to stress that. And they proceeded and landed normally at home.

We understand that the American Eagle knew about the airplanes above him. He did not know about the single F-16 in front of him, and became concerned when he saw an airplane below him.

That's all the information I have at this time. We are talking to the unit, we have impounded the tapes on the airplanes, and we are trying to sort this out so it's under investigation at this time.

May I respond to your questions?

Q: If you're confident enough to say there was no imminent collision, what's the closest those planes came to him when they passed over him, as you say?

A: The information we have at the same time is, they estimated they were approximately 2,000 feet above that aircraft and had the aircraft in sight.

Q: So it wasn't characterized as a near miss, as initial reports, we were told initially.

A: That's correct. They had the airplane in sight. It was not a near miss whatsoever. They were well aware of the aircraft and passed over the aircraft. Three of them passed over. The one in front that was below him also had the American Eagle in sight.

Q: Did any aircraft in this incident have to take any evasive action at all? Were you aware if any cockpit indications came up automatically in the American Eagle cockpit?

A: I'm not aware of the cockpit indications of American Eagle. You'd have to inquire of that aircraft.

Q: How about evasive action?

A: I don't know of any evasive action. It would not have been taken by our airplanes because there was plenty of vertical separation and they had the aircraft in sight.

Q: Any communication between various cockpits at all?

A: The F-16s would have been on Washington Center frequency, and they would also have had inter-plane communications between them. So they were aware of each other, they had each other in sight, and they also had the American Eagle in sight, is the preliminary information we have.

Q: How close was the fourth plane to the commercial aircraft?

A: The information we have right now is that the commercial aircraft was at 19,000 feet under Washington Center control. And the information we have on our fourth aircraft is that he was at 17,500 feet, descending, and so well below the airliner.

Q: Can you tell us what you know about the incident Wednesday off the New Jersey coast, and whether or not the information you have right now calls into question the actions of either the controllers, civilian or military, or the pilots?

A: I'll tell you what I know about the incident off the East Coast at the present time, and I'd like to stress that this is under investigation. Both of these incidents will be investigated. We will find out what happened, and we will find out if we need to take any action as a result of what happened.

The incident on the East Coast, as we know it, was a flight of two F-16s out of Atlantic City, New Jersey. They were cleared into their training area which is Warning Area 107, which is East of Atlantic City, New Jersey. They received clearance to go into that area. It was a two ship flight.

They had planned to do a training exercise in which the airplanes would practice intercepts on each other. It was a training flight for the two pilots. The instructor pilot who was leading the flight when he entered the area -- and it's unclear to us at this time whether he was told there was traffic in the area or whether he did his normal radar sweep, but he did a radar sweep of the area and detected traffic in the area.

He instructed his wingman to hold clear while he investigated the traffic in the area. He made radar contact with the aircraft, he later got visual contact with the aircraft, and the information we have is that he closed in to positively identify that aircraft, and then broke off at a later time and resumed his mission.

Q: Are Air National Guard pilots trained in the ways of automated collision avoidance systems? Would this pilot be aware of how close he could get safely without activating that system?

A: We are aware of the terrain collision avoidance systems which are installed on civilian airliners. We do not have them on our F-16 aircraft. But we are aware that they are on civilian airliners. We are aware of the parameters that set these off. On the other hand, that's one of the things the investigation will look at, is how aware are we, do we need to look at these procedures, do we need to make any changes in those procedures?

Q: ...training for these pilots to be made aware of the parameters and the sensitivities of these systems?

A: I can't answer that question right now. That's one of the things we'll look into in this investigation.

Q: Are there any indications that either the air traffic controllers failed to give crucial instructions or that the pilots failed to heed any instructions given from the controllers?

A: We don't know that right now. I've seen the reports on the TV the same as you have, of the transcript tapes. But I can't verify those tapes, and we'll be looking at that, again, as part of the investigation to find out who was talking to who, looking at those air traffic procedures.

Q: Is it normal for a pilot who spots a plane on radar to take a closer look, to go up and get within 1,000 feet down, 1,000 feet back? Is that normal conduct?

A: It's one of the options that you have. Another option that you have is to stay clear and ask other people to clear the area for you. But again, we'll be examining the actions of the pilot, the legality of his actions, and also the appropriateness of them. So we'll be asking all those questions.

Q: Do you know how long after the incident yesterday, how long after visual contact was made with the 727 did the pilot break off? And if you don't know the answer to that, can you comment in a general way about, given these two incidents, the overall safety of flight issues off the East Coast regarding commercial air in the military?

A: I don't know how long after the incident the pilot took off. Again, that will be part of the investigation. But my opinion of the safety of flight off the East Coast is it's very safe. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that we have hundreds and thousands of flights a day off the East Coast and relatively few incidents that take place. My opinion is that these, they're well established procedures, well established areas. The civilian pilots, the military pilots know these areas. The controllers are well trained, the pilots are well trained, and we have very, very few incidents out there.

Q: The second incident, you didn't say exactly where it occurred.

A: The information we have is that it occurred 10 to 15 miles east of the Atlantic Coast as the aircraft were returning from Warning Area 108. So off the East Coast approximately 10 to 15 miles.

Q: Off what state?

A: Off of the State of Maryland.

Q: Were these pilots hot-dogging or engaging in any sort of maneuver that they weren't supposed to be doing?

A: There is no indication that anyone was engaging in a maneuver that was improper at this point.

Q: If a pilot, as in Wednesday's case, if a pilot is coming into a warning area and is made aware that there is traffic in the area, what's the normal procedure?

A: Two procedures that are available to you. One of them is to contact the controlling agency, find out where the traffic is, what the traffic is, try to see that the traffic is clear; and another one is to go take a look at the traffic. Both of those area available to the pilot, and both of them are legal.

Q: Isn't that a problem with these collision avoidance systems, though? These are fairly new on airliners just in the last few years...

A: They are new, and...

Q: Doesn't that create a real problem if the airliner doesn't know that a 16 is coming up to take a look...

A: That's one of the things we will be looking at is that very question that you're asking. I don't know the answer to that question.

Q: In the first incident, it's been reported now that the plane, the 727 was going through an area, cruising through an area that was not commonly used by commercial airplanes. Can you explain why that is?

A: I think we need to let the FAA explain why the aircraft was in the area, whether or not he was cleared, who he was talking to, and who gave permission for both flights to be in there. I don't have the answers to those questions.

Q: Do you know how often that area is used by commercial traffic?

A: I cannot tell you that.

Q: When you said there's no indication that anyone was engaged in improper maneuvers, which incident were you talking about, or both incidents?

A: I'm referring to both of these incidents. I have no information that anyone has done anything improper at this time, and we're looking for all of these answers, obviously.

Q: Just cleaning up one point. You talked at one point about the inter-plane communication. Are the F-16 fighters able to communicate directly to the civilian aircraft?

A: Not normally. You have two radios in the F-16. One is a UHF radio and one is a VHF radio. You normally maintain inter- flight communications and either communications with the controlling agency or a common frequency for the area that you are working in. But you are not normally talking to the civilian aircraft. Those civilian aircraft are normally under control of the FAA controlling agency for the area.

Q: But in an emergency, for instance if the plane was checking to see if a plane was in distress, wouldn't it be something that you'd want to have the capability to do, to radio directly to the civilian airliner?

A: There are emergency frequencies available on both military and civilian aircraft if the pilots monitor those frequencies.

Q: Should that have been used in this case?

A: I can't tell you whether it should have been used in this case or not. There's no indication to me that it would have been appropriate in this case.

Q: Are you aware of any other incidents in which Air National Guard planes have caused the collision avoidance systems on commercial airliners to activate?

A: I'm not. This is the first that we're aware of.

Q: How do you account for the fact that there were two of these incidents involving F-16s in a three-day period when we haven't heard.... You've talked about thousands of flights that go on.

A: These are totally unconnected incidents. One was an intentional intercept in an area, and another is part of normal air traffic control procedures where flights will have other flights in the area in sight and avoid those flights under radar control and also visually. So I can't explain two incidents happening in a short period of time, but they appear to me at this time to be unconnected. But we will certainly look at both of them for commonality.

Q: Can you tell us anything about a "go work south" order given to the pilot who was approaching the 727?

A: I cannot tell you about that. I've heard that statement, but I cannot verify that that's true; I can't verify that the pilot heard it if it was given.

Q: CNN has the transcripts. Would you like to see them? (Laughter)

Q: Regarding the incident today, no planes were out of position or not cleared in. All these planes were properly on the proper glide slope and doing what they were properly doing.

A: Every piece of information I have at the present time about the second incident is that people were doing what was normal, common; they were doing what was in accordance with established procedures; they knew where each other was; and they knew where the American Eagle flight was. That's the information I have at this time.


Q: So why are we here then?

A: We're here because you're asking me questions about the incident, and the incident has been reported -- and properly so. Any time there's an incident that is of concern to the military, of concern to civil aviation, we should investigate it and find out what implications it has to prevent any serious incident from taking place in the future. The good news here is that these collision avoidance systems that are being used are alerting us to things that happened all the time that we never knew before. Now we're knowing about them happening and we're going to look at each one of them and see can we prevent anything from happening in the future. This is good news for us, I believe.

Q: Before it was easier for your planes to get close to commercial airliners and nobody would ever... It would go unnoticed. It would have gone unnoticed a few years ago. Today's incident, for example.

A: That's my assessment, without knowing the details. The details of the investigation are not available to me at this time.

Q: Are you an F-16 pilot?

A: No, I'm not. I flew F-15s.

Press: Thank you.