MONCKS CORNER, S.C. (AP) – The Air Force F-16 pilot whose jet collided with a small civilian plane over South Carolina in 2015 told investigators he saw the aircraft in front of him for “less than a second” before impact, according to documents released Tuesday.
After being told by an air controller in the area that there was some kind of air traffic about two miles away, the pilot said he desperately searched the skies about him to spot it.
“I was looking aggressively, trying to find that plane,” the F-16 pilot said, heeding a request from the controller to make a turn in order to try and avoid the smaller plane.
The pilot’s comments are contained in documents released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board. The documents are evidence gathered as part of the NTSB’s investigation into the July 7, 2015, collision, but don’t contain any analysis or conclusions.
The board is expected to determine a probable cause of the collision and suggest safety improvements at their Nov. 15 session in Washington, D.C.
The pilot said he continued to search for the other aircraft, “still not finding him. … And then I looked back up front, the last time, there was an aircraft, rapidly approaching.”
The military pilot told investigators he spotted the plane “right in front of me … within 500 feet” and that he pulled back on his controls to avoid a crash.
“I pulled back and felt impact,” the pilot said. Asked how long he’d seen the smaller plane, he replied, “Less than a second.”
The military pilot told the investigator, “A two-mile call is the closest call I’ve ever received. That was a big alert for me,” the pilot said of his 12-year career in the Air Force.
The pilot said he thought his aircraft wasn’t responding properly after the crash, and looked to avoid crashing into anything on the ground before ejecting.
Debris from the collision, which happened at 11:01 a.m. near Moncks Corner, was scattered over a broad area of rivers and farms about 20 miles northwest of Charleston.
Air Force officials have identified the F-16 pilot as Maj. Aaron Johnson. He was flying solo out of Shaw Air Force Base in central South Carolina on a training flight and had no munitions aboard. After parachuting to the ground, Johnson was returned to Shaw after being taken to Joint Base Charleston for a medical checkup immediately after the crash. He has since been allowed to return to flight duty, Air Force officials said.
The Cessna pilot was identified as 30-year-old Joseph Johnson, who was traveling for the day from Moncks Corner to Myrtle Beach with his 68-year-old father, Michael. Although they shared the last name, the F-16 pilot and the men in the Cessna were not related.
A summary in the NTSB documents said the Cessna was destroyed during the collision. No flight plan was filed for the Cessna. After the midair collision, the damaged F-16 jet continued to fly for an additional three minutes until the pilot ejected, parachuting safely to the ground. The F-16 was destroyed in a fire on the ground.
The Cessna is a single-engine, two-seat propeller plane that typically weighs about 1,500 pounds when fully fueled. The F-16 is about 50 feet long and weighs nearly 10 tons, not counting fuel or its weapons.