In a new court filing, federal attorneys admit government air traffic controllers’ actions were to blame for a fatal collision two years ago between a military jet and a civilian aircraft near Lake Moultrie.
The crash killed the two passengers in the civilian Cessna 150M — former Minor League baseball player Joe Johnson and his father Michael — not long after they took off from the Berkeley County Airport in July 2015. The F-16’s pilot Air Force Maj. Aaron Johnson (no relation) was able to parachute to safety.
The victims’ family filed a lawsuit earlier this year claiming Federal Aviation Authority’s air traffic controllers failed to react properly. The Charleston Post & Courier reports the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed its response Thursday. The filing admits the FAA is liable for the crash but questioned the damages sought.
The government’s admission was not unexpected, since a National Transportation Safety Board investigation last year found an FAA controller was late in notifying the F-16 about the other aircraft. Investigators believe the Cessna was too slow for the jet’s radar to pick up. Johnson was on a solo mission at the time to practice instrument-assisted approaches at Joint Base Charleston.
The report states the controller, expecting the Cessna to remain low to the ground, did not alert Johnson to the other plane until the two aircraft were less than three miles apart. But Maj. Johnson was not able to spot the other plane with his eyes. According to audio released by the NTSB , the controller told the pilot to “turn left” if he did not have the other plane “in sight.” Six seconds later, she again told the pilot to “turn left… immediately.”
Investigators said the controller had wanted Johnson to make a hard left turn, but the pilot instead used the autopilot to make a more gradual turn as he attempted to spot the other plane. The turn took the F-16 directly into the Cessna’s path. According to simulations released by the NTSB, the dramatic speed difference between the jet and the prop plane likely meant neither the F-16 pilot nor the Cessna passengers saw the other aircraft until it was too late. The NTSB stated the private pilot would likely have been monitoring radio from the Moncks Corner airport and would not have heard the conversation.
“The United States admits that its employees’ acts and omissions proximately caused the subject accident and resulted in the deaths of Michael and Joseph Johnson,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office response states. “Accordingly, the United States does not contest its liability for their deaths in this case but does contest the existence, type and quantum of damages available to Plaintiffs.”
The family’s attorneys are seeking a jury trial to award damages.