Loss Of Separation Between F/A-18, Citation At Austin


The FAA is investigating a loss of separation between an F/A-18 and a NetJets Citation that occurred at Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport Sept. 23. The Washington Post reported that preliminary information it saw said the two aircraft came within 200 feet of each other after an air traffic controller apparently misunderstood a request by the military jet to perform a break to set up for landing. The Citation had already been cleared to land when the crew got a proximity, warning according to the Post.

The controller apparently believed the fighter was going to begin the break at a different point, but the military pilot corrected him, according to an ATC archive obtained by the newspaper. “Negative,” the Post said the military pilot responded. “I requested altitude, airspeed [at] my discretion for the break. Misunderstanding I suppose.”

The military pilot called the tower after landing and requested a phone conversation with the controller. “Yeah, I was going to give you the number here because I guess there was a miscommunication,” a controller said. “I misunderstood what was requested, I guess.” The Navy and Marines both fly F/A-18s, but neither responded to requests for comment by the Post.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I remember early in my career in ATC, I had no idea what military aircraft were going to do. Overhead approaches are poorly explained in the 7110.65, compared to what happens in the real world, and there’s practically no training on the procedure in the civilian world. If a controller has no military experience, he’s flying blind unless he sees military aircraft, particularly fighters, on a regular basis. I finally got there, mostly by experience and chatting with colleagues who were former military, but this is definitely an area where the FAA could improve its training.

    • I fly to AUS often. It is a very busy class C airport. I don’t understand the need for an overhead break when planes are backed up waiting to depart and there is a long line landing. If I were the controller it would be a simple “Unable, expect vectors for the visual 18R.”

      • There is no “need” for the overhead break however it serves two purposes: 1. It’s just so darn cool. 2. Navy pilots routinely do this in VFR conditions to set up for landing on the boat or at a base.

        • Then they should go to a base. I guess with the use of standoff weapons they really don’t need to look out of the aircraft.

  2. AIM 5-4-27 covers the overhead approach maneuver. It seems like there may have been a misunderstanding on both parts.

  3. Imagine if he requested an SFO (simulated flameout) approach! As a retired Air Force controller, I question the need to allow military jets to “fly the break” (or an SFO approach) at an FAA facility. Different types of jets perform differently in both of those types of approaches and it even takes military controllers a while to understand where they’re going to be at any given time on the approach.

  4. As a former Fox-4 driver, I tried to shy away from asking for a break while conducting ops in the civilian sector. The dozens of times that I did I never had an issue. Maybe it’s the younger generation of ATC types. Hopefully, this will enlighten others and force training on both drivers and controllers.

    Our lingo and the civilian sector lingo is like cats and dogs. As my ole pappy used to say as he smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand………should’ve known.

  5. As others have touched on – I do not understand why military flights would be allowed to fly breaks and other military maneuvers at civilian airports – at least when other traffic is in the area.

    • Pardon me?! Civilians can and do perform overhead breaks and was part of my private pilot training. Very useful when in a coastal zone and the coastal fog is closing in and VMC is about to turn IMC.

      Has to do this into TOA more than once as the coastal fog often rolls in and out in the evenings.

      For GA airports the C172s flying a long direct entry is far more of a traffic hazard making the pattern all hold for their 8 mile 100 FPM decent starting in another county.. like they are pretending to be a 747.

  6. I’m with you on no three sixty overheads at a civilian airport. I love my military, but once they hit initial, the entire pattern pretty much belongs to them, and as a controller you don’t know what this particular one is going to do. I worked single runway Clark tower at its peak of Vietnam support. Single fighters and formations doing the overhead while MATS C135s and all other types straight in. It was frequently a mess trying to get the overheads informed as to a needed sequence.

  7. Flying “a break” should be restricted to military airports only. Other than looking cool, is there a point to such a maneuver?

    • Overhead approaches (as the military does them) are much more efficient at getting everyone on deck in a timely and orderly fashion.

      • I doubt that that’s the case when you have a single fighter coming in to land at a civilian airport, and mixed in with civilian traffic, as was the case here.

    • I’ve never had a problem with flying the 360 overhead at any airport. If it is a busy airport and ATC doesn’t want me to do it–– fine. No problem. It is standard at military bases, but I understand that it can create confusion at some civilian-only airports, so I just go with the flow. It is best for everyone to know (and understand) what everyone else is doing.
      As for the functionality of this maneuver, it is a great way for slick, high-performance airplanes–especially with air-cooled engines–to slow down, enter a pattern, and land without shock-cooling the engine. You can see the entire traffic situation, you can adjust the break to follow another airplane on downwind, and after the “break” and you rollout on downwind, you’re just another airplane in a standard pattern. What I don’t understand is why some pilots think this is abnormal or dangerous. It doesn’t require anyone to adjust their pattern and makes it easier to inventory all the airplanes in the pattern.
      I live on an airpark and many of us use this procedure all the time. It’s a great way for me to slow my RV-4 in the pattern instead of 5 miles out while descending. I don’t reduce power rapidly, but slowly while on initial, then during the break, airspeed bleeds off rapidly turning onto downwind.
      What needs to happen is for the FAA to write a GOOD description of this maneuver in it’s discussion of patterns at non-towered airports in AIM. Flying over the field prior to downwind entry doesn’t cause any problems, so why should a 360 overhead cause problems. Many of us who have flown these patterns for years have begged the FAA to do this, but to no avail. No big surprise there.

      • Ah, you nailed it. I missed this comment before entering my comment. I agree 100% with everything you said here.

        I recently did a FAAST Wings program on non-tower airport operations and added the Overhead Approach Maneuver to the section on standard pattern entry procedures. There was a lot of interest and much better understanding when the program was finished.

      • Bipes4evr – Have never flown this procedure. A question I would have is what happens if an airplane executes a go-around, which could start on either base or final. What is the possibility of the go-around climbing into the break traffic on its initial segment?

  8. What is the purpose of an overhead break anyway? At civilian airports, the maneuver really gets in the way of traffic flow and ties things up, especially at the busier fields. Is the maneuver manditory with fighters?

  9. Retired Air Force ATC here. The controller could have denied the break at pilot’s discretion (most fighters break over the numbers) and have the fighter break midfield, runway end, extend downwind, etc. or break the fighter out to re-enter initial.

    Being Austin is a civilian airport some controllers apparently aren’t familiar with overheads which is understandable.

  10. The Overhead Approach Maneuver (Overhead Break) is documented in section 5-4-27 of the AIM. It is worthwhile reading. The overhead pattern entry is not only standard world-wide, it is also probably the safest way to enter the pattern as it provides the arriving aircraft better options for taking separation from other aircraft in the pattern without having to make huge airspeed adjustments.

    In the case of high-performance military aircraft, the Overhead Approach Maneuver gives them a way to arrive with sufficient energy for maneuvering, and to bleed that energy off for gear, flaps, and to merge with other traffic on downwind.

    I use, and teach, the “Overhead” as an excellent and safe way to enter the pattern. Once my students understand it, they adopt it as a normal way to enter the pattern AND to avoid the problems of a straight-in. The only issue is that it tends to produce a much smaller and quickly-completed pattern than what is usually used by GA, which appears to have been the issue here with the loss of separation.

    So for those of you asking about the efficacy of the Overhead Approach Maneuver at a GA airport, please take the time to educate yourself prior to passing judgement. It does not, “get in the way of traffic flow and ties things up.” It actually enhances mixed operations between high and low performance aircraft IF it is understood.

  11. Although it has slacked off, our uncontrolled field’s CTAF used to get a lot of snappily delivered “Red RV initial 8” type call-ins, often when other aircraft were in the pattern. I admit to bitching about it some.

    I am not against the procedure itself and understand the argument that it is an efficient way to get down to the threshold (as well as being fun & fighter jock-ish), but I felt that other pilots in the process of flying a more conventional pattern might not fully grasp what was about to happen, particularly since a requirement seemed to be full-throttle right to the break. While it is argued that every pilot should know and, more importantly, be familiar with the process, the fact is the at many GA airports it is rarely encountered. Regular users of the process need to take that into consideration when electing to execute that approach.

  12. We see overheads often at KABQ, including flights with multiple planes who spread out by breaking at a different point for each aircraft. It seems quite efficient. Key seems to be for the controller to have a sense of the timing as the pace changes from a fast approach to the field and then a delay as the aircraft do(es) the circuit. I don’t have a clear picture of who was where in the Austin episode or who screwed up. Has anyone found a link to a recording?

  13. I posted a link to the audio portion between F/A 18 pilot and the AUS Tower controller here, 2x, but it was never posted.