This Isn’t Mig Alley, Mr. Bertorelli


I read with great interest and dismay Mr. Bertorelli’s opinion piece (AVwebinsider, Apr. 1) about the recent near-midair-collision with an aircraft involved with an F-16 in the Gladden MOA (Podcast, Mar. 31). I also read the follow-up with retired Lt. Col. Fred Clifton and listened to his interview (Podcast, Apr. 4). I preface my comments with the fact that the military has not responded officially. And it doesn’t look like the Pilatus pilot experienced an actual intercept in a Homeland Defense operation. So my conclusions are my own based on personal experience, assuming it was an U.S. Air Force (USAF) jet. And it’s my opinion that some of the USAF’s leadership fosters attitudes in their aircrews that MOAs are their exclusive domain (obviously supported by some of your readers). The AVweb audio portion also informs us that there were two incidents with apparently the same F-16.I have taken excerpts from Mr. Bertorelli’s opinion piece and commented to each in turn below. Mr. Bertorelli cites a friend’s opinion about one fighter pilot’s severely misguided attitude (my words) about playing in sandboxes. Please inform your buddy that MOAs are not sandboxes where children play. Or does his opinion belie a greater attitude problem within the USAF pilot community? One thing’s for sure: I do know that most military pilots don’t think of themselves as Tom Cruise.My credentials? I was a 20-year Air Force pilot, starting out as a FAIP (First Assignment Instructor Pilot) in the T-38 at Reese AFB. I then moved to the C-130 (my second choice) and Beech King Air (by choice) before finishing up as a MAJCOM Flight Safety Officer (PACAF) and a Numbered Air Force (11 AF) military airspace manager. I helped manage the Alaskan military airspace & range complex for 6-1/2 years until 2005. I know a thing or two about MOAs, the military and FAA rules of engagement. At least I hope this is still the case — that pilots are being taught to respect and show stewardship of the airspace and respect all its participants.At the end of this piece, I have included excerpts from the USAF’s Flying Operations Instruction, AFI 11-202 Vol 3. This document, in addition to providing military-specific guidance, distills aviation CFR’s into USAF pilot speak. You will see that nothing in the applicable text from the instruction allows USAF pilots to violate a CFR unless already waived by the FAA or a MAJCOM commander has decided that it is in defense of our country. I do not know if this is the most current instruction, but I can tell you these words have not changed much in over 24 years. (For you older pilots, this guidance used to be AF Regulation 60-16.)Mr. Bertorelli wrote,

“Military aircraft operating inside MOAs are exempt from the FARs prohibiting the rest of us from performing aerobatic flight in proximity to federal airways and, surprise, they tend to maneuver aggressively in all dimensions.”

Nothing in AFI 11-202 Vol. 3, or in CFR 14 Part 91.303, allows pilots to perform acrobatics near a federal airway. In fact MOAs are specifically designed to deconflict with federal airways. So as long as the F-16 remained in the MOA, there could have been no conflict with any IFR aircraft. I’m not sure what his point is anyway, since this incident was with a VFR aircraft. In fact the only two flight rules that AF pilots are allowed to break in an MOA are the speed restriction below 10,000 feet and turning off exterior lighting for Lights Out Training (only in designated MOAs with a proper NOTAM in advance). But the FAA has addressed these operations over the years and has properly mitigated any safety impact in the MOA charting process described in FAA Order 7400.2.

“Even if you operate near the edge of a MOA, you’re at risk. ‘Spill outs’ of high-speed military traffic beyond the confines of a MOA aren’t uncommon and what’s your TCAS going to do with a target descending vertically through your 12 o’clock at 10,000 FPM? The easy way not to have to find out is to avoid active MOAs in the first place — by a wide margin.”

Avoiding a MOA is certainly an option. And today TCAS complicates this issue with VFR aircraft. But the best course of action isn’t to run away, thereby agreeing that it’s the military’s airspace, allowing it to be treated as a Restricted Area. The action should be to educate yourself by checking out the MOA schedule and status while flight planning, announcing yourself on the radio, and requesting ATC services. The FAA mitigates the VFR operations issue in their rules for establishing MOAs by providing for an equivalent level of safety. In the case of Alaska, that equivalent level applied to the Interior MOAs near Fairbanks includes the Special Use Airspace Information Service (SUAIS), hailed by General Aviation as a success in improving all aviators’ situational awareness. The MOAs are indeed so large that it is impractical to fly around them in some cases. Google it for more information. It’s a good thing.

“Or, if you happen to get jumped by an F-16, you could always substitute bravado for utter lack of defensive panache. You’ve still got your radio and, since F-16s have VHF, key up and say something like, ‘Hey buddy, if I had 500 more knots, another bag of gas, hard points, a couple of Sidewinders and pulse-Doppler radar, I’d teach you a lesson.’ “

As I would do face-to-face with the clown who just did this to me. I’m afraid it would be ugly. A fellow instructor showed incredibly poor flight discipline one day with me as his wingman. In the debrief, I informed him that I wouldn’t fly against or with him any longer. Our flight commander supported this. A year after I departed, he killed a trainee in a mishap attributed to yet another display of poor discipline. They call ’em “bad apples” for a reason.

“No one could reasonably argue that it’s a good idea for military aircraft to aggressively intercept civil airplanes pour le sport, but on the other hand, that’s what fighter pilots do and — in an MOA — you are on their turf. If part of your safety matrix depends on military pilots following guidelines not to do this sort of thing or if you expect commanding officers to smack the knuckles of those who do, good luck. You’re gonna need it. All others should follow Mr. Aykroyd’s advice.”

This is what military pilots do? It’s their turf? Intercept unsuspecting, non-participating aircraft at close range? Hardly! We shouldn’t condone this poor behavior and lack of judgment. I realize the investigation isn’t complete and my conclusion may sound judgmental. Let’s just see what comes of the investigation and what the commanders do with this pilot. If their investigation finds him guilty of inappropriate use of the aircraft, they would be smart to park his/her rear-end down for a month or two, assigning him the squadron’s slow-leak tasks. If this is all that’s done, the pilot will be lucky. You may see legal issues arise.Nothing in the CFRs allows for wanton disregard for remaining clear of other aircraft. The pilot elected to fly formation on an aircraft without prior arrangement (see 14 CFR 91.111 (b)), and that, to me, is a near mid-air collision. Doing it knowingly is a breach of in-flight discipline. What if the civilian had panicked and over-G’d his own aircraft in an attempt to get away? When I was an instructor, Air Training Command’s guidance was clear: If we saw a VFR aircraft, we would remain “well clear.” The VFR pilot had no idea what we were doing and we had no idea what he would do if we came near. If the F-16 pilot’s commander condones the act and lets this go, it will increase the risk of future mishaps. Military pilots behave like their commanders. Weak leaders cause trouble. Look at what happened with the Fairchild AFB B-52 in 1994. That guy killed three comrades along with himself. And it’s alleged the senior wing leadership knew they had a discipline problem, but took little if any action to stop it.Lt. Col. Clifton’s views are mostly reasonable and passionate, as they should be. But both his views about the shadowing incident and equal-airspace-access are flawed. The Colonel admitted that even the fighters are VFR. Who has the right of way? Actually, I believe the FARs address this as well (91.115(d)). I agree with the need to train; I do not agree with his assertion that the fighters somehow have priority or a greater need for the airspace. In the FAA’s eyes, the two VFR aircraft have equal access.And to answer Lt. Col. Clifton’s questions, “Was it aggressive?” Yes, I agree it was aggressive. But why? Could it be intimidation? It was certainly stupid. And he asked, “Was it hazardous?” The answer is, actually, yes. What part of 14 CFR 91.111 don’t you understand? This is essentially a violation of 14 CFR 91.13 as well! So, the USAF has bought itself some wonderful negative publicity. But publicity bought at what expense? I’m all for the military using as much readiness-training airspace as it demonstrates it needs. But I’m afraid that stunts like this increase the likelihood mishaps and of losing more airspace than the USAF might gain. Good job, boys!As good citizens, we all should cheer for our military and encourage their realistic training to maximum extent possible. Even though my ears are trashed, I still love the sound. They are, in fact, training to defend us. We (the public) give the military incredible responsibility flying very expensive machines. That comes with mature behavior as a necessary return obligation. Anything less is unacceptable. This was always taught by my commanders. Ultimately, they reminded us that we serve the American people. The author’s attitude perpetuates an apparent discipline problem and reveals that he is participating in the military’s larceny by asserting that MOAs are the military’s exclusive domain, to be treated as Restricted Areas with other players remaining clear.The days of waving the flag to win arguments over airspace are over. Setting off a TCAS inadvertently is one thing. But joining up on a non-participant’s wing is quite another. The pilot may not have been acting with any ill will. The fighter pilot was certainly acting with extremely poor judgment. People get killed that way, Mr. Bertorelli.I would not want to be this pilot right now. He should be in trouble. And for the record, the definition of a MOA is “Military Operations Area” not “military operating area.” You probably got your information from the USAF, though, and that’s unfortunate. Even Luke AFB’s Midair Collision Avoidance Web site can’t get it right! If you don’t know the title of your training airspace, what’s that show? It shows you don’t respect it and take it for granted. For those of you who still think the military has priority VFR in a MOA, you need to read up on the FAA Orders establishing and using this airspace. You are severely misguided.

AFI 11-202 Vol 3, 5 April 2006 (excerpt)

1.2. Compliance.
1.2.1. The PIC will ensure compliance with the following: This AFI and MAJCOM guidance. MDS-specific instructions and supplements. The FARs when operating within the United States including the airspace overlying the waters out to 12 miles from the US coast, unless the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has excluded military operations. ICAO SARPs in international airspace over the high seas, military mission permitting. The specific rules of each individual nation as published in Flight Information Publications (FLIP) planning documents and the Foreign Clearance Guide (FCG). Theater commanders must ensure the contents of FLIP accurately indicate the rules of each nation within their area of responsibility that differ from this instruction. ICAO SARPS when operating in a nation whose rules are not published. Procedures and special notices in FLIP, Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), aircraft technical orders, Air Force directives, MAJCOM directives, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) instructions.
1.3.4. FAR Exemptions and Authorizations. MAJCOMs will obtain FAA exemptions or authorizations only through HQ AFFSA. MAJCOMs will follow the procedures outlined in paragraph 1.3.3. MAJCOM commanders may, for operations subject to the FARs only, unilaterally authorize deviation from air traffic rules without a waiver from HQ AFFSA or an exemption from the FAA, if it considers the deviation “essential to the defense of the United States” and there is no time to obtain approval from HQ AFFSA and the FAA. The MAJCOM will notify HQ AFFSA and the FAA (through HQ AFFSA) of its military intentions prior to deviating from the flight rules. The notice should be given at the earliest time practicable. Any operations of Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA) outside of Special Use Airspace (SUA) require an FAA Certificate of Operations (COA).
1.3.5. An ATC clearance is not authority to deviate from this instruction.

More opinion pieces from guests and AVweb staffers can be found on the ATIS index.