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Crews' errors blamed for December midair collision near Pope

The aircrews of two military transport planes that collided near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during training missions in December relied so heavily on instruments that they did not look hard enough to avoid each other, an accident investigation report found.

The planes – a C-130 assigned to the 440th Airlift Wing at Pope Field and an Army Special Operations C-27 assigned to Fort Bragg – declared emergencies and landed safely minutes after impact. None of the 13 total crew members aboard the planes was injured, and no damage was reported on the ground.

Both aircraft were practicing simulated airdrops on the night of Dec. 1. They collided about 8:30 p.m., the C-27's right wingtip grazing the right underside of the C-130's nose gear door, according to the report, released March 16 by Air Mobility Command.

The Air Force estimated the damage to the C-130 at more than $1.8 million. An estimate for the C-27 is was ongoing, the report said.

Both crews failed "to effectively execute … external visual scan patterns," which led to a "reduced ability to recognize unsafe situations," the report stated. While there were crew members on board who would normally assist in scanning the skies, "they were each performing other duties in the moments prior to impact."

"About 80 percent of a pilot's perception and decision making comes from what he or she sees," the report continued. "Scanning is not just a task, but an art that must be consistent and deliberate."

Both crews instead relied too much "on Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems to alert them to potential traffic conflicts," an AMC news release said. The routineness of the mission also led to crew complacency, "despite inherent risk associated with night, low-level visual flight rules operations on night vision goggles."

Still, both crews "performed well" in the aftermath of the crash and prevented "this incident from deteriorating into a more catastrophic event," the investigation found. "I found no evidence to suggest this incident was due to dereliction of duty or failure to perform assigned duties."

A 440th spokeswoman told the Fayetteville Observer that the Air Force had no plans to take disciplinary action against the Air Force crew.

The timeline

The C-27 took off from Pope just before 6 p.m. under clear, moonlit skies. The C-130 took off about an hour later. Both planes planned to conduct simulated airdrops, the report said.

The C-27 performed several drop landings at Laurinburg-Maxton Airport and was on the way to a second waypoint for simulated airdrops at the time of the incident; the C-130 was performing an "escape maneuver" after completing a visual container delivery system airdrop.

They aircraft collided just south of Mackall Army Airfield, some 60 miles from Fort Bragg.

The C-130 crew knew right away they'd struck another plane – but not another military aircraft.

The mission pilot, whose name and rank were redacted from the report, likened the impact to a boat running aground or a car running over a manhole – jarring, but not particularly violent.

"The whole plane was shuddering shuttering. It was nothing like normal," the mission pilot told investigators.

"I remember the bright flash, the loud sound, the physical shaking of the aircraft," the co-pilot said. "And it was all so abrupt I didn't know what had happened."

One crew member told investigators he thought they'd hit a Cessna.

"Then another aircraft called in, and based on the call sign, [we] were able to determine we hit a C-27," the mission pilot said.

With engine No. 4 lost and the plane shuddering shuttering, the crew declared an emergency and headed back to Pope, where they landed safely.

The impact was less dramatic aboard the Army transport plane. "Somebody described it as … like hitting a street curb, you know, without slowing down," the C-27 pilot told investigators. "But the great thing about it was … we're OK. We're flying and the wings are level and we're not spiraling out of, you know, whatever."

The crew decided to play it safe and made an emergency landing at Mackall. As soon as they disembarked off-boarded the plane, they realized the top third of the tail was missing. The right wing had also sustained damage.

"We just stood in awe," the pilot said. "And then I started to worry a lot about everything. … I was afraid we had hit a small airplane and that they were laying in a ball 10 miles south of the field."

Soon, the C-27 crew got word a C-130 nearby had also declared an emergency and was attempting to land at Pope.

"We were like, 'Oh my God, it could have been a C-130,'" the pilot told investigators. "We were just putting two and two together and just thinking that's the most obvious thing. … I was really concerned that we had hit somebody, that you know, probably didn't make it."

Later, he said, they learned the Air Force plane had landed safely. "There's no luck in this at all, except for that we all got to walk away."

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