How Close Is Too Close?
The FAA is trying to figure out whether 200 feet is enough when
it comes to vertical separation between civilian traffic at Mather
Airport and USAF trainers at Beale AFB (CA). Recently Sacramento
County squeezed in construction for a new school by bumping some
civilian traffic up to 1800' AGL from 1500' on approach to Mather.
Implemented in September, the new rule didn't change the altitude
for USAF T-38 trainers flying in and out of Beale AFB. They still
fly at 2000'. Now, Sacramento County Airports Deputy Director
Frances Sheretz wants the FAA to review a complaint from corporate
pilot Mike Gallagher.
"A botched job of trying to change the traffic pattern altitude
at Mather did not take into account the military traffic,"
Gallagher said. The "high volume of T-38 traffic" was
But Airports Director Hardy Acreea disagrees. "We've had verbal
reassurance from the FAA that this is not an issue." He says the
county ask for the FAA's opinion only because "we just wanted an
official opinion on that."
So far, even Gallagher, who once flew in T-38s, admits there
haven't been any problems with vertical separation. But he's
worried about what might be. "The potential for this type of
problem is small," acknowledged Gallagher, who has flown T-38s.
"But the problem it could cause could be huge. And the cost to fix
it is virtually nothing. If something does go wrong, it's not going
to take very long. T-38s move very fast and they're hard to
The traffic pattern around Mather is crowded and very complex.
There are multiple flight levels for different types of aircraft.
There are also multiple jurisdictions involved -- including the FAA
and the military.
The idea was to raise the roof and build the school. GA traffic
was to be bumped up from 1000' AGL to 1300' in the vicinity of the
airport. The FAA didn't go for that. But corporate traffic,
including multi-engine turbine and jet aircraft, was bumped up from
1500' to 1800' after the county mandate in August. Military traffic
flies at 2000'.
How safe is a 200' vertical separation between the commercial
and the military traffic? "I have no T-38 experience," says
Assistant Airports Director Sheretz. "I don't know. I'm not in a
position to have an opinion on it one way or another."
Last Monday, Sherertz reminded the FAA of the request for an
opinion. "I don't want them to forget about it," she said. "I'm
trying to be the squeaky wheel."
Military pilots at Beale seem quite aware of the issue. Earlier
this month, one pilot sent an e-mail to Beale airspace manager John
Schuller and sent copies to four other officers at Beale. The
letter describes the new 1,800-foot level at Mather as "min
spacing" and suggests Beale pilots remain "extremely vigilant until
we can aid in the correction of the turbojet traffic pattern
Until then, the letter advises, "Keep your eyes out of the
cockpit and make sure the tower knows you are flying at 2100 MSL
(2,000 feet above ground)."