Detroit passenger jet dives to avoid collision with Skydive Tecumseh plane

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Skydive Tecumseh is involved in a Federal Aviation Administration investigation. Photo by Mickey Alvarado.

Skydive Tecumseh found itself in the center of a media storm on Monday evening after the Federal Aviation Administration began an investigation into the close proximity of a Spirit Airlines jet and one of the Skydive Tecumseh jump planes in airspace over Tecumseh on Sunday. Skydive Tecumseh owner Franz Gerschwiler was in contact with the FAA on Monday, and FAA investigators interviewed the jump plane’s pilot.

“They took pains to say ‘You’ve done everything right all season,’” Gerschwiler said. “We do everything the right way.”

After speaking with the FAA on Monday, Gerschwiler was shocked to hear the evening news coverage on local and national news. “I didn’t know it was that big of an incident,” said Gerschwiler. “We didn’t even give it a second thought.”

He was especially troubled that no news organization contacted him at all about the Sunday incident and felt the press release used by most news outlets from the Associated Press (AP) distorted the facts spelled out by the FAA in its press release, which read:

“The FAA is looking into reports that a Spirit Airlines jet responded to an onboard traffic alert while flying between Detroit and Dallas-Fort Worth on Sunday, June 30. Preliminary information shows that Spirit Flight 313 was climbing at approximately 8:22 p.m. near Tecumseh, Michigan, when air traffic controllers notified the Spirit pilot that a skydiving jump plane was climbing just south of the jetliner’s position.

The Spirit pilot confirmed that he could see the smaller aircraft on his Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). A minute later, the Spirit jet received an automated TCAS warning that required him to begin an immediate 1,600-foot descent to 12,800 feet from a previous altitude of 14,400 feet. At their closest point, the planes were about 1.6 miles apart horizontally and 400 feet vertically. The skydiving plane was flying under Visual Flight Rules, under which pilots are responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft.”

According to Elizabeth Isham Cory, FAA External Communications/Public Affairs, the media focus was the result of a passenger phone call to the media. The FAA investigation was already underway.

“We know about this because it is part of our system,” Cory said. “FAA is responsible for running air traffic control in this country.”

Two days after the event, the FAA is unable to say for certain exactly why the incident occurred. “It is a rare event. It’s something we’re concerned about,” said Cory. “I think it’s a little soon to say what is going on.”

The investigation process is expected to take several weeks, according to Cory, as the FAA looks at several different areas, including whether the rules of flight were followed. “We’re looking at everything involved in an event,” Cory said. “The FAA has nine responsibilities in aircraft investigations. The goal is to find out what happened and take the steps to prevent it from happening again.”

Gerschwiler believes the media coverage made it seem as though the Skydive Tecumseh pilot was unaware of the Spirit airliner. “Our pilot was in visual contact with it and did everything to avoid it,” said Gerschwiler. “Spirit didn’t get, or ignored, the warnings that they were sliding into space another aircraft was in.”

Much of the AP story focused was on the sharp descent made by the Spirit pilots, frightening passengers. “Their choice was to dive to below,” Gerschwiler said. “I have no real comment on their actions.”

Although Tecumseh airspace is relatively close to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, it is rare for flight paths to cross, according to Gerschwiler. Planes flying in airspace up to 14,000 feet are guided by Detroit controllers, and above 14,000 feet the contact switches to Cleveland. Gerschwiler wonders if this may have created confusion for the Spirit aircraft.

“Once in a blue moon they have to send aircraft through our airspace and they let us know,” Gerschwiler said. “Sometimes you have to share your toys.”

He believes the integrity of Skydive Tecumseh speaks for itself, and the 50-year-old company has always put safety first. “It is clear this is a complete miscommunication,” said Gerschwiler.
After spending Tuesday on the phone with media, Gerschwiler will be glad when life returns to normal. He’s not worried about long-term effects of the investigation.

“We’re squeaky clean,” Gerschwiler said.




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