(Master Sgt. Lance Cheung/Air Force)
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An MC-130, like this one, while flying a training mission in November over England, was surprised by two Royal Air Force GR-4 Tornado attack planes flying close by. A newly released investigation found the RAF pilots were not at fault. (Senior Airman James Bell/Air Force)
The Royal Air Force GR-4 Tornado attack plane came from seemingly nowhere. It crossed from the left of an Air Force MC-130 and circled behind — close enough for the MC-130 loadmasters with the 352nd Special Operations Group to see the RAF markings.
Then, while parachutists were jumping from the MC-130 at 13,000 feet, another Tornado came within five miles of the special operations plane, this time, nose to nose.
That’s when the MC-130 pilot radioed his concern to a Tornado pilot and ground controllers that the Tornado was flying too close, putting the parachutists at risk. The Tornado pilot’s response: He “had every right to be here,” according to an investigation by a U.K. Airprox Board released this month.
The investigation found neither Tornado pilot at fault, and confirmed that the Tornadoes did indeed have a right to be in the same airspace as the MC-130. The danger was more “perception” than a real risk of midair collision, the investigation report said.
But the Nov. 7 incident near Sculthorpe, England, made clear the need for better communication among RAF and U.S. air crews flying in the air space near RAF Mildenhall, where the special operations unit is based. The Tornadoes were on a training mission from RAF Marham, about 30 miles away.
“[T]he mis-match in perception could quite easily have been prevented with the application of effective coordination between these two units, who both commonly use the busy East Anglian airspace,” investigators concluded.
U.K. officials said the incident was similar to one four months before, when Tornadoes were flying close to a C-130 Hercules during an airdrop training mission. They said in the report they were encouraged to learn that the two units are working on improving communication.
“In conjunction with the report’s recommendation, flight safety offices from both the 352nd SOG and the other aircraft’s unit met to ensure communication remains constant and clear. Both agencies worked out new processes to better communicate in the future,” the 352nd said in a May 14 statement.
According to the report, the MC-130 pilot reported to air traffic controllers during flight that he was encountering “fighter-type aircraft in the vicinity.”
When the fighters circled around, the MC-130 pilot radioed more contact. The controller told the pilot that regulations did not restrict the airspace.
The U.S. Air Force pilot told investigators that he was aware he did not have exclusive use of the airspace, but he thought the Tornadoes were too close. He told controllers he was not worried about the safety of his aircraft, but he was worried about the safety of the airmen parachuting.
The second GR-4 pilot in the two-aircraft flight told investigators they were conducting medium-level air-to-ground training. During the training, he saw the MC-130 and advised the other pilot about the MC-130 conducting “para dropping.” They continued their training while keeping visual contact and staying about three to five nautical miles clear of the MC-130. The RAF pilot described the incident’s severity as low.
In the statement, the 352nd said the U.S. Air Force “works hand-in-hand with the U.K. Ministry of Defence and is committed to developing interoperability and building long-lasting international relationships.” The situation, the special operations unit said, “has been resolved in its entirety.”