An Alcoa resident saw Tuesday what he said appeared to be a “near miss” by two military aircraft at McGhee Tyson Airport. Technically, that might be called a “near collision” — which officials say it wasn’t.
Mike Linginfelter, a licensed pilot who has flown a number of different single-engine aircraft, told The Daily Times that is what he witnessed around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. He was at the Exxon station on Alcoa Highway at Wright Road to fill up a gas can when it happened.
“I saw the KC-135. I could hear it coming and he was coming at a really low takeoff. He’d used a lot of runway,” Linginfelter said.
The KC-135 could have been in the process of doing a touch-and-go or been taking off for a flight, Linginfelter said. “He was rotating gear up.”
While he was watching the KC-135 Stratotanker, a refueling aircraft based at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, he spotted another military aircraft, an A-10 Thunderbolt, commonly called the Warthog and used for close air support in combat.
“So I was watching him and then I saw the A-10, and what he was doing was obviously a military arrival where he came upwind of (runway) 5Right, probably at better than 300 knots, and then made that 90-degree cut,” Linginfelter said.
“When he made the 90-degree cut he came within 50 feet of that KC-135. They crossed each other’s path. They didn’t react to it. The KC-135 kept climbin’ and scootin.’ The A-10, I don’t know what happened to him. He turned downwind on 5Right and probably landed,” Lingnfelter said. “As close as they came, it was a near miss.”
Not so, according to military and civilian officials.
When contacted about the incident, Lt. Col. Travers Hurst, public affairs officer for the 134th Air Refueling Wing, indicated he was aware of the incident in question but that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred and all distances between the planes were "safe and within limits."
He reiterated that after checking further.
“Double checked with our operations group and the tower and there was nothing out of the ordinary that transpired this morning. We were just doing some routine work. Another aircraft was coming in flying by. But nothing out of the ordinary, all the distances were safe and within limits,” Hurst said.
The Federal Aviation Administration response was similar. Kathleen Bergen, FAA communications manager, said she checked and it was determined there was “no near midair collision.”
The FAA later issued an expanded statement.
“Air traffic operations at McGhee Tyson Airport were safe this (Tuesday) morning, a near mid-air collision did not occur. A KC-135, operated by the Tennessee Air National Guard, was practicing a touch–and-go (takeoff and landing), which is a routine operation. An A-10 aircraft was in the traffic pattern and asked for an overhead approach to the runway for landing. The A-10 pilot kept the KC-135 aircraft in sight, which pilots and controllers call ‘maintaining visual separation.’ As the KC-135 lifted off the runway and proceeded to climb, the A-10 turned toward final approach to the runway and landed safely,” the FAA said.
Linginfelter said he understood and appreciated the official responses. He also agreed that observers on the ground sometimes perceive that aircraft fly too close even though from pilots’ and controllers’ perspectives, the aircraft are separated and the operation is safe.
However, based on his own experience as a pilot and observer of aircraft in flight, he stood by his observation.
“We saw what happened,” Linginfelter said.