The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a reported near-midair collision between a single-engine Cessna 150 and a giant C-17 military cargo plane last month just south of Wasilla.
A pilot in the private plane reported the Sept. 20 incident to the FAA and is calling, in a letter copied to Alaska's two U.S. senators, for military planes to fly at higher altitudes in the region to avoid crashes with smaller aircraft.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson officials say there was no near-collision at all, and that the two planes were never closer than 500 feet apart based on aircraft instruments.
The FAA inquiry follows a string of midair crashes involving small planes this summer in Alaska. Two Cessna float planes collided in July near Trapper Creek, killing a family of four. In September, a pair of Cessnas crashed while traveling together in Western Alaska, killing one of the pilots.
Although military aircraft have shared air space with private pilots around Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough for decades, Elmendorf-Richardson spokesmen said they were not aware of any prior complaints of near-collisions involving C-17s or other military planes.
"It's an issue that's been ongoing for a long time. It's a big air space. There probably have been some close calls, but nobody has formerly reported them," said Carl Siebe, a board member for the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation.
The September flight under investigation began quietly.
Flight student Devon Copple, 22, piloted the blue-and-white Cessna as it took off from the Wasilla airport and rose to more than 2,000 feet. Copple and veteran instructor Heidi Ruess of Arctic Flyers sat side-by-side as they talked about contacting air traffic control.
After a morning of practice maneuvers and training landings, it was time for the flight home to Anchorage. Copple rehearsed what she planned to say on the radio.
The University of Alaska Anchorage student grew up in airplanes, the daughter of a Kenai pilot killed in a 2004 crash on the west side of Cook Inlet, she said. At 5 feet 1 inch tall, she sits on a cushion to see clearly out the windows.
The Cessna was about 2,200 feet to 2,250 feet in the air when she looked to Ruess and glimpsed something strange through the right-side glass.
"All I saw was gray," Copple said. It was the massive wing of the larger plane.
The 174-foot-long C-17 -- one of the Air Force's newest cargo planes -- was fast approaching from behind and beneath the Cessna, the pilots said. Contrary to Air Force estimates, Copple and Ruess guessed the big transport jet roared within 100 feet of the Cessna.
"I thought it was the end, really," said Ruess, who has taught pilots in Alaska for about 35 years and flown more than 30,000 hours. "It was pretty close."
'MALEMUTE DROP ZONE'
The military uses C-17s for dropping supplies and soldiers in battlefields. In Southcentral, the cargo plane crews train by flying in a wide "racetrack loop" that begins at Elmendorf-Richardson, north toward Wasilla and then south toward an training area called the "Malemute drop zone" that lies in a restricted area on Fort Richardson between Knik Arm and the Glenn Highway.
On Sept. 20, the C-17 was practicing a heavy equipment drop.
"They perfect it here, and then they bring it over to the fight," said Maj. Joseph Coslett, Elmendorf-Richardson director of public affairs.
Ruess and her son, pilot Richard Ruess, say the C-17s fly too low and too fast in areas where pilots are commonly flying in smaller planes.
Turbulence created by the wake of the big planes, for example, could prove fatal to pilots in private planes, the Ruesses say.
In Heidi Ruess' case, her small plane and student pilot were using a radio frequency to monitor Wasilla airport traffic, so there was no way to hear from Anchorage air traffic control that the C-17 was nearby, the pilots said. Seeing the massive wing out the window came as a shock.
"If we moved down, we would have been a goner," she said.
The C-17s can be hard for other aircraft to see because of their gray, camouflage paint scheme, according to a pamphlet on avoiding midair collisions prepared by the Air Force.
The cargo planes fly at altitudes of 300 to 2,000 feet in Southcentral, according to the Air Force. They travel at roughly 200 to 250 knots -- or as much as three times as fast as Ruess' Cessna was flying the day it encountered the cargo plane, the flight instructor said.
When flying at low altitudes, the jets can share air space with smaller planes when the small planes are descending or ascending from airports.
The Ruesses are calling for the C-17s to begin flying higher, at 3,000 feet, when they are passing through uncontrolled airfields and practice areas such those as near Wasilla.
"We have to do something before somebody gets hurt," Heidi Ruess said.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson officials say that's not an option in the area where the C-17 and Cessna crossed paths. The cargo planes need to be at about 2,000 feet in that area to begin their approach to the drop zone, JBER spokesman Bob Hall said.
The cargo planes can't be making "quick, sharp" moves, he said. "Quite often they've got like 50 soldiers in the back of these aircraft, literally standing up, they're standing up with their chutes on."
Paratroopers need the C-17 to be stable for about 60 seconds to jump, 3rd Wing Operations Group Commander Col. Derek France said in a statement provided by the Air Force.
"We have been asked in the past if we could fly at 3,000 (feet) over the Big Lake/Wasilla area. In doing so, we are only able to give the paratroopers 15 seconds of stability time for them to prepare to exit the aircraft," France said.
'POSSIBILITY OF A COLLISION'
Ruess' formal report to the FAA describing a near midair collision with the C-17 has launched an investigation by the agency in Anchorage, an FAA spokesman said.
Under the FAA definition, a near midair collision occurs when planes pass within 500 feet of one another with the "possibility of a collision."
In her letter to the FAA officials, Ruess said the C-17 appeared to fly as close as 100 feet from the Cessna. The smaller plane was flying at about 2,200 feet and had just leveled off about 4 miles southwest of the Wasilla airport, she wrote.
The C-17 overtook her plane, passing from below, as it headed southeast, she wrote.
"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.
In her letter to the FAA, Ruess asserts the pilot of the C-17 failed to follow regulations that require pilots to be vigilant in avoiding other aircraft and that give planes being overtaken the right of way. She cited an FAA rule that says when one plane has the right of way, the pilot of the other plane "shall give way to that aircraft and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear."
Hall, the JBER spokesman, said the C-17 was precisely where it was supposed to be and took no improper action.
"They were directly on (the) path that they were supposed to be on. They didn't deviate from their path," Hall said.
In an email, Hall said the C-17 crew did receive an alert about the smaller plane from the on-board traffic collision avoidance system.
That alert instructed the pilots to monitor their own vertical speed, and prompted the pilots to file what's called a hazardous air traffic report to the 3rd Wing safety office.
The Air Force did not report a near midair collision to the FAA because the electronic collision avoidance system showed the Cessna was not within 500 feet of the larger plane, Hall wrote. The Air Force says the aircraft were separated by an altitude of 300 feet and they were more than 500 feet away laterally.
The FAA inquiry is meant to determine if a near-collisionactually occurred and, if so, how to avoid future close calls in the future.
Spokesman Mike Fergus said the FAA does not comment on ongoing investigations and declined to talk about the current status of the case.
Flight instructor Heidi Ruess and student Devon Copple describe what they call a near midair collision with a C-17. Video by Kyle Hopkins