Transcribed from The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, UT, August 28, 1971, p. 6A:
A Disaster’s Aftermath: Stiff New Flight Rules
By FRANK MACOMBER
Copley News Service
EL TORO, CALIF. — A grim new thrust of purpose is evident at this Marine Corps Air Station, home of the 3rd Marine Air Wing, where the careers of young military pilots are shaped by the way they fly high-performance jet aircraft.
Still hanging over the station is the bitter memory of what happened last June 6, when a Marine F4B Phantom jet-fighter plane and a Hughes Air West DC-9 collided over Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles, killing 50 people.
Included among the passengers on the Salt Lake City-bound flight were 13 Utahns and seven Idahoans. Nine of those victims were former University of Utah fraternity brothers returning from an annual deep sea fishing expedition to Mexico.
The tragedy which took the lives of all aboard the DC-9 and the Phantom’s pilot has triggered a series of stiffened military and civilian aviation rules and the possibility of others to reduce the danger of air collisions in the crowded skies over many large American metropolitan areas.
Seldom, if ever, in its aviation history has the Marine Corps conducted a more searching inquiry than its investigation of the events which led to the June 6 collision. It paralleled an investigation and three days of hearings by the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal civilian agency.
While the ultimate findings and recommendations of the latter board still are months away, the twin inquiries already have raised serious doubts over aviation’s doctrine of “see and be seen” in congested air corridors.
The “see and be seen” formula presumes that the pilots of all planes, civilian and military, constantly will be on the lookout for all other aircraft flying in their immediate airspace, regardless of other navigational and observation aids.
Obviously it did not work on June 6 when the Phantom and DC-9 collided at an altitude of about 15,500 feet in a clear blue sky.
The doctrine was held in high esteem for many years, when air lanes were less congested, air speeds of both civilian and military aircraft were hundreds of miles and hour slower and general aviation business and pleasure planes were in the minority.
Today more than 6,000 flights occur daily over the Los Angeles basin, the majority of them involving small, low-speed general aviation aircraft.
“The question must be asked whether the ‘see and be seen’ doctrine any longer is viable under such conditions, with the advent of high-performance (high speed) aircraft,” says Maj. Ronald J. Kaye, USMC, counsel for the military board which investigated the June 6 crash and acting Navy judge advocate during the National Transportation Safety Board’s hearings in Los Angeles.
The “see and be seen” rule might well be outmoded as the chief air safety credo in a sky filled with a variety of aircraft, he believes, even under what the Federal Aviation Agency calls “visual flight rule” conditions in the absence of instrument flying.
“The high closure rates of today’s aircraft — that is, the speed with which they move toward each other — opens the doctrine to serious question,” Kaye added in an interview touching many of the issues involved in the June 6 crash.
Kaye buttressed his arguments by pointing out that while the Marine Corps and Hughes Air West must share responsibility for the air collision, there is no firm evidence that either pilot was violating the rules of the sky when it occurred.
During the board hearings the question constantly arose whether military flight rules were violated by 1st Lt. James R. Phillips, the 27-year-old Phantom pilot, when he flew on the ill-fated three-day cross-country training flight without a functioning transponder. (This is a “black box” electronic device which enhances an aircraft’s radar image and identity when viewed in the scope of the ground air controller, thus giving him more information on the relative positions of craft in his air corridors.)
The Phantom was flying under a visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan and therefore was not compelled to operate its transponder. Moreover, Kaye recalls, Lt. Phillips had received special permission from his command to fly without an operable transponder before he left Fallon Naval Air Base near Reno, Nev., on the final leg of the journey back to El Toro. Otherwise, he would have been violating a military flight rule.
“Since the accident, however,” Kaye said, “that rule has been stiffened so that none of our planes, under any conditions, can take off without an operable transponder. Today the Phantom would have to sit at Fallon until it was fixed.”
Kaye said it was unfortunate that the early statements of 15-year-old Jeff Whittington, a Duarte (Calif.) High School student, apparently persuaded the public that the crash was the “immediate responsibility” of the Marine pilot. (1st Lt. Christopher E. Schiess, Phillips’ radar intercept officer at the time of the collision, ejected and parachuted to safety as the sole survivor of the crash.)
Whittington, who witnessed the collision, said he saw the Phantom execute “stunts” and what he called a “barrel roll,” a term used in connection with aerobatics, before the accident.
But later questioning by competent interviewers, Kaye recalled, drew from the youth evidence that what he had seen was one “aileron roll,” a single-roll 360-degree maneuver sometimes used by pilots to see what is below them.
“There are all indications that Lt. Phillips was a cautious, prudent, nonaggressive pilot,” the major said. “He was not the type to show off or stunt unnecessarily. Even so, he was in what is called controlled airspace, where aerobatics would not have been illegal.” (They would have been unlawful in FAA-designated federal airways.)
At the board hearing, Kaye recalled, Schiess told how Phillips tried desperately to bank sharply to the left a few seconds before impact.
“Another second or two and there might not have been a collision,” Kaye said.
What has happened in the wake of the tragedy, as the civilian board awaits a report from the Judge Advocate General Manual Board and then drafts its own findings and conclusions?
First, the FAA has dropped from 24,000 to 18,000 feet the “floor” over which radar transponders must be operational at all times.
The Marine Corps is considering the use of landing lights on its aircraft during daylight as well as nighttime to enhance their visibility.
It also is studying the value of special vision training for pilots to sharpen their lookout for other aircraft.