Jedi 21 — the call sign for a Cessna 02-A Skymaster propeller plane with a crew of three — was flying over the Avon Park Air Force Range as part of a training exercise being conducted by Air Force Special Operations Command when the weather began to deteriorate.
It was the night of Nov. 17, 2010. An Air Force staff sergeant performing weather forecasting duties had already recommended to the Avon Park tower that planes like Jedi 21 return to base because of the rain and low visibility, according to investigators.
At about 8:45 p.m., the crew made the last call anyone would ever hear.
“Inbound to Avon Aux Field.”
Five minutes later, the plane, which had aborted the exercise on its own after experiencing sensor problems rendering it unable to participate, crashed into a farm field. Its wing, investigators would later determine, was ripped off by strong wind, sending Jedi 21 into a dive from which it could not recover.
The crash of Jedi 21 is another example of the dangers of military aviation training, which has claimed nearly 80 lives since 2010, according to figures compiled by The Tampa Tribune from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. That also includes the March 10 crash in heavy fog of a Louisiana Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter near Eglin Air Force Base that killed all 11 on board, including seven Marine commandos and four National Guard air crew.
The aviation mishaps range from a birdstrike on an Air Force HH-60 helicopter that killed all four crew members on Jan. 7, 2014, and a Navy aircraft hitting the side of a mountain, killing both crew members on March 14, 2008, to an Army OH-58DR helicopter clipping wires in 2011 killing two and the midair collision of two Marine helicopters on Feb. 22, 2012, killing seven.
The figures, however, do not include the crew of Jedi 21. That’s because Robert Finer, James Scott Henderson and Samuel Marcus Adams, all former military pilots, were no longer in uniform but flying as civilian contractors in a civilian-owned plane.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that weather was the likely cause of the Jedi 21 crash.
“The pilot’s inadvertent encounter with an unexpected intense rain shower with severe turbulence at night” was listed as the probable cause of the crash in a Feb. 16, 2012, NTSB report.
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In May 2013, the widows of the three crew members sued the government, claiming in a wrongful death action that, among other things, the Air Force failed to provide adequate weather information to the crew, in an airplane with no weather sensors, as it made its final approach to Avon Park into a strong storm. The government denies those claims, adding that any blame belongs to the air crew and the company that owned the plane. Air Force Special Operations Command deferred comment to the Department of Justice. Air Force officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The suit, which was filed under seal for security reasons until a request from The Tribune to make the amended complaint public, is scheduled to be heard before a judge in South Florida next month.
Bob “Snapper” Finer, 57, started his military career as a Marine infantryman before learning how to fly and becoming an aviator. He retired in 2000 as a lieutenant colonel, continuing his passion for flight, says his widow, Dena Finer.
“He was a very highly skilled and dedicated pilot,” says Dena Finer.
After leaving the Marines, Finer spent summer fire seasons flying firefighting aircraft. The flight out of Avon Park was part of a new contract he’d just signed, says Dena Finer.
“His goal was to help train these men so they could come home from the war zone,” says Dena Finer.
James Scott Henderson, 49, served in the Air Force for 25 years, according to his obituary, earning several medals while flying F-16s during the Gulf War before retiring in 2008 as a colonel. His wife, Sharleen Henderson, declined comment.
Samuel Marcus Adams, 48, flew combat missions for the Air Force in Operations Desert Storm and Southern Watch, before retiring as a lieutenant colonel, according to his obituary. His wife, Beverly Adams, declined comment.
The three men were working for Patriot Technologies Group, a civilian firm which helped train troops on how to call in close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, according to its Linkedin page. They were aboard one of the company’s two aircraft taking part in the exercise.
What happened on the day of the crash is culled from NTSB records unless otherwise noted.
At about 3 p.m,, an Air Force staff sergeant, who is not named in the NTSB report, was forecasting the weather in preparation for a mass briefing, scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m., for everyone involved in the training exercise.
“Conditions looked to be on track for relatively clear skies,” the staff sergeant noted. He later recalled that before the mass briefing, he noticed “mid-level cloud cover increased at around 7,000 to 8,000 feet with some scattered clouds to the south at about 4,000 feet.”
There were weak returns on the radar, but the staff sergeant told investigators he believed that they would “die out relatively quickly.”
At about 6:30 p.m., Henderson and Adams attended the mass briefing “which covered the goals of the exercise, the status of the airfields, and most relevantly, the current and forecast weather,” according to the lawsuit. Finer, the pilot, who had 6.200 hours of civilian flying time, gave the Skymaster a pre-flight check, according to Dan Rose, the attorney representing Dana Finer.
The other Patriot Technologies Group aircrew attended the briefing as well.
“During the briefing, there was no mention of any precipitation or convective activity throughout the flying period,” the unnamed pilot of the second aircraft told investigators.
At about 7:30 p.m., the Skymaster with Finer, Henderson and Adams took off from Avon Park, according to the suit, about 10 minutes after the other Patriot Technologies Group plane.
Around that time, the Air Force forecaster could see showers building up on the radar from the southwest moving toward the northeast. He notified exercise commanders of “a possible recall of light and medium fixed wing aircraft.” After hearing from a pilot of low clouds and rain to the south, the forecaster contacted the tower sometime between 8:10 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., recommending a recall of aircraft, like Jedi 21, that relied on visual flight rules “due to worsening conditions with rain and lowering ceilings.”
At 8:15 p.m., after flying through “numerous rain showers with visibilities between one and two miles,” an H-60 helicopter taking part in the mission, who had reported that the weather “was worse than briefed,” had difficulty landing at Avon Park. That was because of what was called “0-0 conditions” while over the field — meaning they could not see where they were because of the weather.
By 8:40 p.m., Jedi 21 reported that it was returning to base. Five minutes later, the crew reported it was 4 miles away, with the plan to call in when it was 2 miles from Runway 5, where officials in the Avon Park tower told it to land.
That final call never came, so a search and rescue order was initiated. But it was too late.
A resident living about a mile or two from the accident site said it had just started to rain when he heard, but did not see, an airplane.
He described the sound of the plane as “at full throttle, like it was pulling out of a dive.”
Then he heard a “thud” sound and, realizing the plane had crashed, called 911.
A second witness was on his back porch about three-quarters of a mile from the crash site, talking to his daughter on the phone, when he too heard, but could not see the plane.
At first, the plane sounded normal. Then it sounded like a “dive bomber, rolling into a dive,” the witness told investigators. The engine revved louder until the witness heard the crash, then called 911.
Both men reported that a big storm hit the area shortly after the accident.
About a half hour after the crash of Jedi 21, the second Patriot Technologies Group plane reported that it was aborting the exercise due to weather, and that they had trouble landing at several airports because of the storm.
The pilot of the second plane told investigators that he didn’t “receive any additional weather information throughout the flight” nor did he get called back to base because of the weather.
At 1:18 a.m. Nov, 18, searchers found the wreckage of Jedi 21, along with the bodies of the three crew, in and around a retention pond and swamp on a farm pasture.
Dena Finer, 50, had just flown to California with her sister, Julie Hobbs, and was at the rental car counter when she received a call from her husband’s oldest son, telling her about the crash.
“It was horrible,” she says. “I just broke down in the middle of the rental place. Thank God my sister was there,”
Dena Finer says she immediately returned to her home in Idaho.
“It has devastated my life,” she says of the crash. “Everything imploded on me.”
Sharleen Henderson, according to court papers, was hospitalized last year for “serious health reasons” largely related to the stress of litigation.
In their suit, the women claim that the Air Force had a duty to tell Jedi 21, which had no weather-sensing equipment, about the deteriorating weather. The suit alleges that despite an Air Force weather forecaster urging the tower to have planes return to base, that call that was never made and instead Jedi 21 was told to land into “the edge of a storm ... capable of producing severe turbulence and strong outflow winds.”
The suit points out that, according to the Air Force handbook, “Severe and extreme turbulence have been known to cause extensive structural damage to B-52s,” a far bigger and sturdier aircraft than the Skymaster.
“The National Transportation Safety Board estimates that turbulence accounts for approximately 71 percent of all weather-related accidents and injuries” with the cost to U.S. airlines due to injuries, damage and delays estimated at upward s of $500 million per year.
The government, which declined comment through the Department of Justice, denies in its responses any negligence and argues that if there is any blame, it rests with the crew and the company that owned the plane. The government also states that federal law protects weather forecasting from being the subject of claims.
“Aircrews operating at Avon Park were also advised that the Tower would provide only limited weather information (ceiling, barometric pressure and wind direction/speed),” according to the government’s response, “and there was no certified radar equipment in the Tower to provide radar-based air traffic control or air traffic weather information.”
The Air Force weather forecaster’s “primary duty was to support the unit that was in charge of conducting the exercise, and he would provide specific weather briefings for aircrew only upon request,” the government said in its response.
The matter will be up to a judge to decide, because the parties could not come to an agreement during mediation.
Because Finer, Henderson and Adams were civilians, their ability to file a tort claim against the government is far greater than if they were still in uniform, says John McKay, an attorney specializing in aviation law. That’s because the Federal Tort Claims Act doesn’t permit service members, or their estates, to seek claims for injuries or deaths sustained while on active duty. Over the years, lower court decisions have extended that to claims brought by reservists, McKay says.
Dena Finer says she has special empathy for the families of the 11 killed in last month’s Black Hawk crash near Eglin Air Force Base, which is still being investigated.
“It is devastating to the families,” she says. “It is heartbreaking to hear other people having to go through it. It touches my heart so closely.”
Story and photo gallery: http://tbo.com
NTSB Identification: ERA11GA066
14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Wednesday, November 17, 2010 in Avon Park, FL
Probable Cause Approval Date: 02/16/2012
Aircraft: CESSNA M337B, registration: N1309
Injuries: 3 Fatal.
NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.
Prior to the flight, the crew attended a mass briefing with the military training exercise personnel for whose operations the flight was to provide aerial support. The briefing included weather forecast information but did not include any indication of rain showers, thunderstorms, or other hazardous weather over the military operations area or near the landing airport for the period of operations. During the flight, the weather in the area began to deteriorate. Other pilots, ground personnel, and witnesses reported periods of heavy rain and reduced visibility. Infrared satellite imagery for the time period of the accident flight depicted an area of cumulus congestus cloud development over south-central Florida, north of a stationary frontal boundary, moving north. Ground personnel were monitoring the deteriorating weather as the accident airplane continued its mission. Although there may have been discussions of a weather recall, the evidence indicates that this did not occur. The accident pilot likely discontinued his mission and initiated a return to the airport due to the weather conditions. The airplane was not equipped with weather radar. As the airplane approached the airport from the north in night conditions, it encountered the edge of an area of echoes with a maximum core reflectivity of 55 decibels; such echoes are capable of producing severe turbulence and strong outflow winds. The right wing separated in flight, and the airplane crashed inverted in a farm pasture west of the airfield. An examination of the wreckage did not reveal evidence of a preexisting mechanical malfunction or failure. All observed fracture surfaces on the right wing showed indications of overstress.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The pilot's inadvertent encounter with an unexpected intense rain shower with severe turbulence at night.
HISTORY OF FLIGHT
On November 17, 2010, about 2050 eastern standard time, a Cessna M337B, N1309, impacted terrain following an in-flight separation of the right wing near Avon Park, Florida. The airplane was registered to a private individual and the public use flight was operated by Patriot Technologies LLC under contract with the Department of Defense. The commercial pilot and two pilot-rated crewmembers were killed. Night instrument meteorological conditions were present in the area, and no Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight plan was filed. The local flight originated at MacDill Air Force Base Auxiliary Field (AGR), Avon Park, Florida, about 1932.
According to the operator, the purpose of the flight was to provide aerial support to an Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) training exercise. The flight, using call sign "Jedi 21," was in contact with AGR tower at the time of the accident. Tower instructed Jedi 21 to report a two-mile final for runway 5. When Jedi 21 did not report final, a search and rescue response was initiated. The wreckage was located about 0118 on November 18.
Several Department of Defense personnel were on the Avon Park Air Force Range at the time of the accident. These persons included range and airspace controllers, a weather forecaster, and other flight crews.
An Air Force Staff Sergeant, acting as a primary Restricted Operating Zone (ROZ) controller, reported the following. Jedi 21 checked in on station and worked on his frequency for about an hour, until he reported a "bent sensor." According to the operator, "bent sensor" is an Air Force Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures Manual 3-1 standard communication term indicating a technical anomaly with sensor equipment. The ROZ controller continued to work with Jedi 21 for about 30 more minutes before checking off station uneventfully.
An Air Force Tech Sergeant, also working ROZ controller duties, reported the following. About 2040, he received a call from Jedi 21 stating that the flight was returning to base (RTB). The controller requested the reason for the RTB, and reportedly received no response from Jedi 21. The controller further stated that they were tracking weather in the area to determine if returning other flights to base was warranted. About 15 minutes later, or about 2055, AGR tower called him and inquired as to the location of Jedi 21. The controller believed at the time that Jedi 21 had landed. About the same time, the "…weather conditions became severe at AGR with heavy rain and limited visibility."
An Air Force Staff Sergeant, performing communications link duties between range control, AGR tower, and ROZ control, reported the following. He heard the RTB call from Jedi 21 to the ROZ controller. When the controller asked for the reason for the RTB, no response was heard. About 2045, Jedi 21 called "inbound to Avon Aux Field (AGR)." He then heard Jedi 21 call 4 miles from AGR, which was the last radio call he heard from Jedi 21. He added that, about 2055, the "weather significantly grew worse with heavy rain at the Avon Field."
An Air Force Staff Sergeant, performing weather forecaster duties, reported the following. He began to prepare for the 1830 evening mass briefing about 1500, and stated, "...conditions looked to be on track with relatively clear skies." He recalled that, before the mass briefing, mid-level cloud cover increased at around 7,000 to 8,000 feet with some scattered clouds to the south at about 4,000 feet. He noted some weak returns on the radar to the south but felt that they would "die out relatively quickly" with the loss of heating as the evening progressed. His overall assessment of the synoptic situation and weather on the night of the accident is that "there was no significant weather event during the operation other than a brief heavy shower." He also stated that the showers did not occur until after communication was lost with the accident airplane.
In a timeline attached to his written statement, the forecaster reported that between 1930 and 2000, he continued to monitor weather to the south and could see showers continuing to "back build" on radar to the southwest, tracking northeast. He notified exercise command of a possible recall of light and medium fixed wing aircraft and requested a pilot report from the south ROZ with no response. About 2010, he received a pilot report of 3,000 foot ceilings and rain to the south. During the time period of 2015 to 2030, he contacted tower to recommend a recall of visual flight rules (VFR) aircraft due to worsening conditions with rain and lowering ceilings. He reported that, at 2035, tower recalled light and medium fixed wing aircraft. From 2040 to 2050, he continued to monitor the weather conditions, and from 2050 to 2055, a brief, heavy shower moved through, reducing visibility to between 1 and 2 statute miles.
An H60 helicopter pilot, who was transitioning from south to north on the Avon Park Range between 2030 and 2100, reported that the weather was "worse than briefed." He stated that his aircraft flew through numerous rain showers with visibilities between 1 and 2 miles. At 2015, while arriving at AGR, they experienced "0 – 0" conditions (zero ceiling and visibility) over the field. After slowing the aircraft, he was able to regain contact with the ground and land.
Another Patriot Technologies Group aircraft was airborne on the Avon Park Range at the time of the accident. He attended the mass briefing prior to the flight and recalled that, during the briefing, there was no mention of any precipitation or convective activity throughout the flying period. He departed AGR about 1920 and arrived on station about 1935. He recalled that, the weather "began to change rapidly and deteriorate with weather moving from south to north." He was forced to deviate from the mission to remain in VFR conditions. About 2120, unable to maintain VFR, he elected to abort his mission and land at Avon Park Executive Airport (AVO). At 2130 he attempted to land at AVO, but weather prevented the approach. He held over Sebring Airport (SGF) until about 2200, when he reattempted an approach at AVO. He stated that, he did not "receive any additional weather information throughout the flight" and did not "receive a weather recall." He added that he was in continuous radio contact with the command and control center and was monitoring UHF and VHF guard frequencies during the entire flight.
A witness was outside at his residence at the time of the accident. He reported that he lived 1 to 2 miles north of the accident site. He stated the following. It was dark at the time and it had just started sprinkling. He heard the airplane, but did not see it. He described the sound as "at full throttle, like it was pulling out of a dive." He then heard a "thud" sound and he knew the airplane had crashed. He called 911 and told the operator that a plane had crashed between his location and Avon Park. He said that there was no explosion. Immediately after the accident, it started raining hard. He was drenched because he needed to be outside to get good reception on his phone. He did not see the wreckage until the next morning.
A second witness was outside, on his back porch, about 3/4 mile from the accident site, at the time of the accident. He was talking on the phone to his daughter. He did not see the airplane or the crash, but he heard the airplane fly near his house. The airplane sounded like it was traveling in a northerly direction. He stated that the airplane sounded normal, and then it sounded like a "dive bomber, rolling into a dive." The engine rpm's increased audibly until he heard the airplane crash. He got off the phone and called 911 because he knew an airplane had crashed. He stated that a "terrible storm" hit a few minutes after the accident, and lasted for about 10 minutes. There was a lot of rain, but no thunder or lightning. The rain was so intense that it filled up his gutters, which he had just cleaned out.
A search of recorded radar data from nearly facilities revealed a primary target on a south-southeasterly heading, and the radar data terminated at a point approximately collocated with the accident site. The time of the last recorded radar point was 2050. No altitude or airspeed data was captured, and the data source was not positively identified as coming from the accident airplane.
The certificated commercial pilot, who was acting as pilot-in-command and was seated in the left cockpit seat, held airplane single and multi-engine land ratings and an instrument airplane rating. He was also a certificated flight instructor. He reported 6,200 civilian flight hours on his FAA second-class medical certificate application, dated December 29, 2009.
According to a pilot history form provided by the operator, dated October 5, 2010, the pilot reported 10 hours total time in the Cessna 337/O-2. He also reported about 3,500 military flight hours.
A certificated private pilot was seated in the right cockpit seat. According to the operator, he was assigned duties to support the training exercise that included operating on-board tactical equipment. A certificated commercial pilot was seated in the aft, right seat. He was assigned duties that included operating on-board communications equipment.
According to the operator, the duties of the crewmember occupying the right cockpit seat did not include flying the airplane.
The airplane was a Cessna M337B, serial number 337-M0015. The airplane was originally built as an O-2A for the U.S. Air Force. It was powered by two Continental model IO-360-D engines, each rated at 210 horsepower at 2,800 rpm. The airplane was not equipped with weather radar.
A review of the aircraft maintenance records indicated that an annual inspection of the airframe and engines was performed on October 14, 2010. The aircraft total time at the time of the annual inspection was 5,566.9 hours. The forward engine time since overhaul was 1,260.3 hours and the rear engine time since overhaul was 1,111.8 hours.
On October 11, 2010, an eddy current inspection of the bolt holes in the horizontal flanges of the lower cap of the front wing spar and jack point was performed. The inspection was performed in accordance with Cessna Multi-Engine Service Letter 78-2. According to the inspection documents, no discrepancies were found.
The National Weather Service (NWS) Surface Analysis Chart and satellite imagery for 1900 and 2200 depicted a stationary front extending east-to-west over southern Florida, south of the accident site. A regional radar mosaic chart identified, in the area of the accident, an east-to-west band of echoes. Infrared satellite imagery surrounding the time period of the accident depicted an area of cumulus congestus type cloud development over south-central Florida, north of the stationary frontal boundary. No defined cumulonimbus or thunderstorms were identified in the immediate vicinity of the accident site.
Doppler radar images at 2052 depicted the accident site under the leading edge of an area of echoes with a maximum core reflectivity of 55 decibels (dBZ) located about one-half mile east of the accident site. The next radar scan at 2057 depicted echoes of 35 to 45 dBZ over the accident site with the edge of the 50 dBZ core located about one-eighth mile east of the accident site. FAA advisory circular (AC) 00-45B correlates echoes of 50 to 55 dBZ with video integrator and processor (VIP) level 5 “intense” intensity echoes capable of producing severe turbulence and strong outflow winds. No lightning activity was observed in the area of the echoes.
AGR does not have weather reporting facilities. The 2055 weather observation for Bartow, Florida (BOW), located 28 miles northwest of AGR included the following: surface winds from 100 degrees at 6 knots, sky clear, visibility 10 statute miles, temperature 21 degrees Celsius, dew point 19 degrees Celsius, and altimeter setting of 30.12 inches of mercury. Other stations surrounding the accident site reported visual flight rules weather conditions near the time of the accident.
A mass weather briefing was provided by the Air Force Weather Service prior to the accident flight. The briefing was conducted by an Air Force forecaster utilizing a color-coded briefing slide. The briefing did not include any indication of rain showers, thunderstorms, or other hazardous weather over the military operations area or in the terminal area of AGR during the period of operations.
A detailed Meteorological Factual Report with accompanying graphics is contained in the public docket for this accident.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The main wreckage was found adjacent to a retention pond and swamp that were located on a farm pasture. The initial impact crater, measuring 7 feet wide by 9 feet long by 3 feet deep, contained the cockpit instrument panel, forward engine, forward propeller hub, and one blade of the forward propeller. A ground scar consistent with the thickness and length of the left wing leading edge was adjacent to the impact crater.
The wreckage path was oriented on a heading of about 130 degrees. The left and right tail booms, vertical stabilizers and rudders, horizontal stabilizer, elevator, and a section of the left wing were found in the retention pond. The aft engine was resting inverted on the edge of the pond. All propeller blades were located within the area of the main wreckage.
Two sections of the right wing were found northwest of the main wreckage impact crater. The outboard section of the right wing, from the inboard edge of the aileron to the wing tip, was found about 800 feet northwest of the impact crater. The aileron remained attached. Another section of the right wing, which included a section of right wing flap, was found about 330 feet northwest of the impact crater.
The wreckage was recovered to a storage facility in Groveland, Florida where a more detailed examination of the wreckage was performed. An examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of preexisting mechanical anomalies. All fracture surfaces that were examined exhibited evidence of overload failure. Sections of the right wing front and rear spars and associated wing skin were sent to the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, DC for examination of the fracture surfaces. Optical examinations of the fractures revealed features and deformation patterns consistent with overstress fracture at all locations. No indications of preexisting cracking such as fatigue or corrosion were uncovered.
For additional information regarding the examination of the aircraft systems and structure, refer to the Structures and Systems Factual Report and the Materials Laboratory Factual Report, located in the public docket for this accident.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
Postmortem examinations of the pilot and crewmembers were performed at the Office of the District 10 Medical Examiner, Winter Haven, Florida. The autopsy reports noted the cause of death for all occupants as blunt force trauma.
Forensic toxicology was performed on specimens of the pilot and crewmembers by the FAA Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory (CAMI), Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The CAMI toxicology reports for the pilot and front, right seat occupant indicated negative for drugs and ethanol. The rear seat occupant tested negative for drugs but positive for ethanol in the muscle, lung, liver, and kidney. Testing for carbon monoxide and cyanide was not performed on any occupant of the airplane.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
Airborne Mapping System
The airplane was equipped with an AeroComputers, Inc. UC5100 tactical mission management system. Memory cards from the unit were sent to the NTSB Vehicle Recorder Division, Washington, DC, for general examination and download of data.
The UC5100 recorded 46 flight history files. The flight history file corresponding to the accident flight was reviewed and the data was extracted using information provided by AeroComputers. The data included the entire accident flight up to about 2045, or 8 about minutes prior to the accident. The UC5100 system is not essential to the operation of the airplane and the crew can power down the system when it is not required. According to AeroComputers, operators normally power down the system when the mission is complete. Additional information regarding the UC5100 data extraction is included in the Recording Devices Factual report, located in the public docket for this accident.