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FAA investigates incident between Cessna, cargo plane; Military denies near-collision occurred

'I thought it was the end,' says student pilot

Posted: October 10, 2011 - 12:04am

ANCHORAGE — A flying instructor has sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, contending a military cargo plane overtook her and a student pilot and passed within 100 feet near Wasilla last month.

Military officials deny the C-17 cargo plane passed closer than 500 feet but the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the Sept. 20 incident.

Student pilot Devon Copple, 22, told the Anchorage Daily News she took off in a blue-and-white single-engine Cessna with instructor Heidi Ruess of Arctic Flyers and spent the morning practicing maneuvers and training landings. On the flight back to Anchorage, the Cessna was at an altitude of 2,200 feet to 2,250 feet when she glanced at Ruess and spotted something through the side window — the wing of the 174-foot cargo plane.

“All I saw was gray,” Copple said.

The C-17 had approached from behind.

“I thought it was the end, really,” Ruess said. “It was pretty close.”

The airplane from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was on a practicing mission to drop heavy equipment. The aircraft can drop supplies or paratroopers.

Cargo planes fly in a loop from the Anchorage base north toward Wasilla and then south toward a training area at altitudes of 300 to 2,000 feet. Base spokesman Bob Hall said the planes must fly at 2,000 feet to begin an approach to the drop zone.

A C-17 must be stable for 60 seconds for paratroopers to jump, said 3rd Wing Operations Group Commander Col. Derek France said in a statement.

“We have been asked in the past if we could fly at 3,000 (feet) over the Big Lake/Wasilla area,” France said. “In doing so, we are only able to give the paratroopers 15 seconds of stability time for them to prepare to exit the aircraft.”

Ruess and her son, pilot Richard Ruess, said the military planes fly too low and fast in areas shared with small airplanes. The turbulence they create could cause a fatal accident, they said. They want the cargo planes to stay at 3,000 feet as they fly through uncontrolled airfields and practice areas.

Heidi Ruess in a letter to the FAA said the C-17 overtook her plane and passed from below.

“I understand that the crew of the C-17 when contacted by approach told the approach controller that they had my aircraft in sight, but the C-17 continued to pass under my aircraft anyway,” Ruess wrote in the letter.

The military pilot, she said, was required by regulations to give the smaller plane the right of way.

Base spokesman Hall said the C-17 was on a correct path and did not deviate. Hall by email said the C-17’s onboard traffic collision avoidance system did give an alert.

Hall said the C-17’s electronic collision avoidance system showed the Cessna more than 500 feet from the cargo plane.

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