By Lt. Col. Shawn Kerrigan, Virginia Army National Guard Maneuver Training CenterApril 15, 2013
Editor's note: The Virginia Army National Guard's Reconnaissance and Interdiction Detachment supports the Tidewater Drug Enforcement Agency's counterdrug missions. At the time of this incident, the author commanded the detachment. During a mission in the fall of 1996, a failure in air traffic control communication nearly led a Navy F-14 Tomcat to claw the author's OH-58 from the sky.
The mission called for one OH-58 with forward-looking infrared to be positioned at Norfolk (Va.) International Airport for an ongoing counterdrug surveillance operation. My instructor pilot and I departed Richmond early on a Monday morning for Norfolk IAP with our crew chief behind us driving a van containing supplies for the week.
Two days into our mission, my IP and I, along with a Drug Enforcement Agency agent in the back, departed Norfolk and starting tracking a suspect traveling by automobile in Portsmouth. When the suspect starting traveling east toward Virginia Beach, we transitioned from Norfolk airspace to Naval Air Station Oceana for flight following. Oceana tower informed us to stay at 1,000 feet directly over the active runway since there were several F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 jet fighters training at the airport. As instructed, we hovered at 1,000 feet and observed the suspect park his car at a local mall and go inside.
With the suspect now stationary, ground units moved in to continue surveillance while we broke contact to refuel at the airport. As the ground units were getting into position, a call came over the UHF radio clearing an F-14 Tomcat to Fentress Airfield. Fentress is a few miles south of Oceana and is used by Navy pilots to simulate carrier landings. I listened for Oceana tower to inform the F-14 pilot that we were operating at 1,000 feet and to stay clear, but Oceana never made the advisory. As a result, the F-14 came roaring off the runway and broke left, climbing directly at us. I quickly dropped the collective to lose altitude and was shocked to see the F-14 pass within 50 feet of us. I saw F-14 pilot's face clearly and noticed he was as surprised as I was.
As we descended, I was shaking with anger -- not to mention fear. My first instinct was to land near the base of the tower to voice my dissatisfaction with the tower's flight-following procedures. However, my IP quickly calmed me down and reminded me that we needed to stay on task and mission.
This close-call reinforced the absolute necessity of maintaining situation awareness at all times. Even with flight following within controlled airspace, you cannot afford to lose SA by completely relying on the air traffic controllers. Had I not been monitoring the radios and caught Oceana's failure to warn the Tomcat of our position, I might not be here today. I never want to see an F-14 or any other aircraft that close to me in flight again.
There is an old saying among pilots that it's important to make sure your number of landings matches your number of takeoffs. If you want to do that, SA had better be one of the tools you always have in your toolbox.