A Royal Air Force (RAF) Voyager tanker aircraft and two U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-15 fighter jets nearly collided over the North Sea after a flight controller was distracted by a phone call, a report has revealed.
According to The Independent, the UK Airprox Board report says the Voyager pilots claimed that one of the F-15s came within 160 feet (50 metres) of the aircraft when it flew directly across their path.
Noteworthy the tanker crew, which was flying at 322mph, said they could feel the turbulence as the fighters, that were flying at 402mph, lit their afterburners and rocketed away to avoid a mid air collision.
“We were very close to not being there anymore,” one of the Voyager pilots told investigators.
The RAF pilot reported the near-miss to flight controllers immediately after it happened on Jan. 5 this year, around ten miles off the coast of north Norfolk.
Investigators concluded the F-15s had been flown “into conflict” with the Voyager.
Furthermore it laid blame on air traffic controllers for failing to provide adequate “traffic information” and misunderstanding the flight plan of the American pilots.
As reported by The Independent a controller based at Swanwick, Hampshire was reportedly confused when the F-15s said they planned to fly in the Wash area for refuelling and assumed the pilots meant the geographic Wash.
Instead, the F-15 crews meant they were flying into the so called “Wash Aerial Tactics Area” further north – the same refuelling where the Voyager was heading towards for refuelling.
The flight controller assumed everything was under control and that the F-15s would be flying south then he answered a landline phone which was not his responsibility and became “embroiled in a distracting and complicated” conversation, which the report says “served to further increase his workload and resulted in him focusing on that task rather than on the F-15s”.
A trainee air traffic controller also monitoring the airspace said the incident “escalated very rapidly”, with the F-15s suddenly turning towards the Voyager.
She told investigators there was little time for the tanker to take action to avoid a collision.
In addition to feeling turbulence as the fighter jets roared away, the Voyager crew said they also saw the engines of the F-15s in reheat and could hear the “distinctive roar” of afterburners providing a boost in thrust, which is usually performed during takeoff or in combat situations.
The Voyager pilot “opined that it should not be underestimated how close this incident was to being what could have been a catastrophic mid-air collision”, the report says.
Photo credit: Royal Air Force and Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew / U.S. Air Force
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