(Part Three of an Extensive Investigation into the Sun 'n Fun
OK… Originally, we were
planning to present the testimony of a number of highly qualified
Insiders, air traffic controllers, mostly, in today's installment
on the investigation of the issues we've been looking into
concerning the oft-deadly and always controversial Sun 'n Fun
Fly-In. And we're still going to do that… later. But when
you get a chance to hear from the guy with the worst possible
viewpoint to last year's mid-air, namely the guy who survived it,
ya gotta put that high on your priority list… and wait 'til
you hear his side of things…
Steve Pierce was the pilot of a PA-16 that
careened from the sky after a collision with the late Jerry
Morrison's RV-6A just before landing at Lakeland, prior to the
official start of Sun 'n Fun 2002. Steve sent us an e-mail and
offered to tell us his story, and we eagerly accepted… it's
not often you get a chance to learn from someone who's had as tough
an experience as he and lived to tell about it. No matter the
fault, there definitely seemed to be some opportunities for a
lesson or two. So… we're impressed and pleased that he spoke
up and offered us an interview.
Steve is a little unhappy with the way the accident has been
portrayed and handled… especially in light of the fact that
the FAA is apparently looking to make an example of him. However,
he seems to have a right to feel that way… read on, and see
if you agree.
Pierce was flying a PA-16 Clipper… an elder rag-wing
Piper taildragger that boasts a top speed of 109 kts and a cruise
speed of 97 kts. The 850 pound airplane is strut-braced, carries 36
gallons of fuel, climbs about 600 fpm and is a simple little
airplane that has gained a cult-like following from rag-wing Piper
devotees. It is NOT a rocketship… just a mild little cruiser
that stalls at all of 43 knots and handles in a pretty honest
fashion. Pierce's bird was an old friend… he'd learned to
fly in it and had logged over 1400 hours in that airplane alone.
More a propos this series: Pierce had been flying into Sun
n' Fun each year since 1995.
He described the Lake Parker gathering place as the "usual
madhouse," and then described his fateful approach to Lakeland late
Friday afternoon, April 5th, 2002. Upon reaching the airport
pattern, Pierce says, "I made a sweeping turn to follow the
Cherokee; I never saw the RV. When I was on
Downwind, they started calling a low-wing, to fly straight to the
numbers… Then they told him to turn again." Pierce remembers
that he thought they were talking to the Cherokee -- he has
since learned that it was actually the RV -- though there was
nothing in the communications that would have specifically told him
"They were turning us pretty tight on the base -- tighter than
I've ever turned at SNF -- I've been going to SNF since 1995; I
think the RV didn't turn base when they told him to; he extended
his downwind, then tried to blend in -- that's what I think."
Pierce explains that, "When you turn us onto 27, you go 'way
out. This year, they called all our turns... in the past, they
didn't do that. Everything they told me to do, they came back and
said, 'good job.' When they talked to the RV, nothing..."
"You get nose to tail, you follow people in... I was nose to
tail with that Cherokee, and I followed that Cherokee in."
The landing area got a bit confusing due to the arrival of a
Cessna 170 that was supposedly told to land long and then commenced
to land quite short… really screwing up the workflow. "Every
time we've been at SnF, they've had two dots -- land long, land
short [Note: But not that year… making positioning one's
landing even more confusing]; this 170 landed, then went slow...
the Cherokee was coming in behind him; his partner shoved in the
power, they knew they wouldn't make it [a go-around], and they
Pierce remembers that the approach controller got interrupted
several times on the way in, and got a bit flustered here and
there, and was supplemented by another controller who seemed a mite
"The controller said, 'Low wing, you're good; high wing, you're
good. Low wing, move it over to the left. Blue-and-white high
"Then I was hit and I saw
GROUND. My whole windshield was just
grass coming at me... I thought, 'this is it.' And I hit
the ground, BAM, look around me, there's fuel everywhere, and I
climbed out the back door, and then realized I was hurt."
"The NTSB told me that my right main gear hit the [RV's] canopy.
Maybe he thought he wasn't over the runway, and then tried to get
to the runway. I'll never know."
Pierce added, "This year, the controller was flustered;
another controller had to interrupt him. Then, when they turned us
too tight -- maybe they didn't want us flying over the
neighborhood where the race went -- I think that's why they
turned us so tight."
He was also concerned abut the change made by the Cessna
170… "I think maybe that 170 diverted the attention of the
controllers off of us, and on to him."
Pierce was surprised at the fact that NOTAM was so sketchy about
position, procedures, frequencies and hooking it all together.
The NOTAM, says Pierce, "Isn't doing the job."
Doc's Been There, Seen That...
Pierce, by the way, has high praise for the controllers on the
runway who came to his aid immediately, and to the emergency
response staff… but was somewhat nonplused when brought to
the emergency room and meeting a passing Doc, whose first words
upon seeing him were a sonorous pronouncement, "Oh, Sun 'n Fun's
starting again…" Gee, thanks.
Another low point was the "crap that came out in the 'The
Alleger' (The Lakeland Ledger, Lakeland's hometown
newspaper… whose Sun 'n Fun cheerleading has been
quite obvious over the years), seemed far off what he
remembered from the accident… and of course, since he was
there, he has a fairly comprehensive understanding of what
What really happened?
So… what DID happen? What's the matter with trying to get
to and from Sun 'n Fun? Pierce thoughtfully replies… "well,
I think it could be a lot safer. I wish they still used the dots to
allow one person to more-easily land one short and one long."
(Note: lack of proper ground references both leading up to and upon
the airport is a common complaint of working controllers who were
interviewed for this story).
He is very concerned about the bottlenecks that occur at Lake
Parker; he had to sit out there and circle with all kinds of
faster/slower traffic. He sees big problems with the communications
procedure and sees a lot of confusion in who should be talking to
him, when, and how… and that the confusion is NOT improved
by the NOTAM. He'd like to see more controllers at runway level and
agrees that the possibility of a portable, runway-based tower
structure (called a "Moo-Cow" in industry parlance) might be a good
step ahead… though he has no idea why they haven't tried one
False sense of security...
He also decries the false sense of security imparted in hearing
a controller call out turns and directions and not being able to
count on them for additional traffic information. "I did what they
told me to do and every time, they'd say 'good job' or
whatever… but they took some responsibility when they
directed us and of course we HAVE to do what they say, I took a
false sense of security in that and I won't take it
Pierce also agrees that the ground operations at Sun 'n Fun
allows the closest proximity he's seen between moving aircraft and
pedestrians and that the buffer zone between moving props and
people is simply inadequate.
One of the intriguing discoveries in
this story was that the aircraft following Steve, was his father,
Gilbert. Gilbert Pierce was not only paying rapt attention to what
was happening; he had a tape recorder taking down every word of the
approach! Gilbert has provided ANN with a
transcript and while we must note that this transcript was
prepared by the father of the pilot involved, other persons who
were involved seem to think this transcript is fairly accurate.
[ANN is waiting for the official transcript, which the FAA is
making us jump through hoops to get. Imagine that…]
Transcriber's Note: Transcript of tape
recorded on 4/5/2002 about 3PM EST. Start of tape is 124.5mhz, Lake
Parker Arrival. The balance of the tape was recorded on 127.7mhz,
Lakeland Tower. All calls are from the tower except for 3
transmissions from aircraft requesting a wind check. I have added
who I believe the calls were to as it is not clear from the tower
calls who they were directed to. Only the tower communications are
transcribed. ANN has edited this transcript to a point shortly
before the collision.
- (unintelligible blanked by call for wind check) over the
runway-keep it flying down the runway-save you a little taxi
time-keep it going - oh nicely.
- (unintelligible blanked by call for wind check) strobes in
trail please-no side by sides-no over and unders.
- High wing approaching the new terminal building start your left
turn now for right down wind and descent please. (believe this call
was to brown C170)
- Wind Check (from aircraft)
- Second high wing-don't turn yet-keep it coming south we'll call
your turn. (believe this call was to 5293H)
- Good tail-dragger-keep it there.
(Note: There is some confusion here, as at one time they
call it a High Wing, and then the next time, during a call that
appears to be to the same aircraft, they call it a Tail Dragger.
There were 5 high wing tail draggers in the pattern at this
- Good tail dragger-keep it there.
- Wind Check please (from unknown aircraft)
- Wind 350 at 4
- High wing now - start your down wind. Left turn right down
wind. (Believe this call was to 5293H)
- Low wing-you keep coming south we'll call your turn.
- OK, the first high wing that's on the down wind good job
descending-turn your right base now-right base now (Note: Pierce
believes this is the brown C170 or the red and white high
- High -high-high wing, I'm sorry- a low wing (New Voice from
Tower) Low wing (unintelligible) airport you have high-start your
descent - start your east bound now.
- High wing on the right base- good job- one turn to the final
now please-wind 340 at 5 runway 270 right the skinny runway-you're
cleared to land. (Brown C170)
- Just go down the runway as far as you can.
- High wing - one turn to the final- I want you to tighten up the
base please-one turn to the final-you're getting a good north wind
so you need ta---good job
- Red and white Cherokee- go east go east now!! (This is the
airplane 5293H followed from Lake Parker)
- High wing-turn you down wind now.
- Tail dragger over the numbers- keep it going-keep it going fly
it down the runway
- Low wing-turn base now - turn base now- tighten it up-one turn
to final please. (RV6A)
- Low wing on right down wind-maroon low wing-turn right base
- Red and White (background conversation in the tower
- Red and white high wing -ah-change your runway-27 left now
cleared to land 27 left you're on a right base for 27 left-cleared
- Maroon low wing-straight to the numbers for 27 right-the skinny
runway now straight to the numbers-I don't want a base I want you
straight to the numbers.
- High Wing (5293H) turn base now turn base now---good job you're
- Maroon! You're not helping me-go right to the numbers 27
right-the skinny runway-----tighten it up-speed it up if you have
- Red high wing turn base now (5834H)
- High wing approaching the tower-start your descent for me
--Good job-keep it coming south-I'll call you're turn-don't do it
- Red white keep it flying cause there's people behind you. I'll
tell you when to set it down. (Red and White Cherokee 5293H had
followed from Lake Parker)
- Maroon you're doing good (RV6A)
- High wing you're fine (5293H?)
- Tail dragger-speed it up down the runway-there's a lot of
runway down there, there's people behind you, I need you keep it
going down the runway- keep your speed up.
(This call was to the C170, Pierce believes, after [later]
talking to the Cherokee pilot... At the time, however, he thought
the call was to his own 5293H--confusing because of the number of
tail-draggers, not to mention the fact that 5293H was over the
runway at this point)
- Maroon low wing-move to the left, slide over to the left low
wing. Big Runway-on the big runway-you're cleared to land.
- Blue and White High wing...
(Collision occurs at this point)
- Keep it up, keep it up high cause there's someone behind
you-keep it up higher!
- (New voice from Tower) Red Tail Dragger keep it flying keep it
flying red tail dragger.
The FAA Goes After Pierce… Long Before He Recovers
Last fall, while still healing, Pierce
received certified letters from the FAA letting him know that he
was in deep shinola. The FAA sent him a Notice of Proposed
Certificate Action…. Threatening to take away his
license… for an accident that was still, officially, under investigation
and for which a final cause was YET to be established!
In what certainly appears to be an FAA-instigated attempt to
lock down a fall-guy, Pierce reported that the FAA was on him,
literally, right after the accident and attempted to interrogate
him even as he lay in a hospital bed, with significant injuries and
without the ability to actually talk, due to his injuries…
requiring him to write out his answers.
Pierce has tried to compromise a bit… taking a 609 ride
to prove he was still up to snuff... but has refused to accept a 90
day suspension that they want to foist upon him. Still, the FAA
went after him charging that…
4. The above mentioned arrival that you executed, a
"Lake Parker Arrival," consisted of the following procedures: fly
westerly heading over power plant smokestack with white strobe
lights, located at the north end of Lake Parker, maintain 100 kts
at 1,200 MSL, then southbound heading to airport after crossing
Interstate 4 and prior to reaching strobes on towers, then entry of
airport traffic pattern, right downwind for Runway 27
5. Thereafter, you executed a right traffic turn to the
base leg for Runway 27 right.
6. At the time in which you executed the
above-mentioned base turn, there was another aircraft ahead of you
(civil aircraft N3333S, an RV6A) that was on his final approach to
7. While on your final approach to land on runway 27
right, you overtook and collided with civil aircraft N3333S while
the RV6A was still on his final approach to land, causing an
uncontrolled impact with the ground of both aircraft.
8. As a consequence of the foregoing collision, civil
aircraft N3333S sustained actual and substantial damage, and the
pilot of said aircraft was fatally injured.
9. As a result, you violated the following sections of
the Federal Aviation Regulations:
a. Section 91.13(a) in that no person may operate an
aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the
life or property of another.
b. Section 91.111(a) in that no person may operate an
aircraft so close to another aircraft as to create a collision
c. Section 91.113(b) in that when weather conditions
permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under
instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be
maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and
avoid other aircraft. When a rule of this section gives another
aircraft the right-of-way, the pilot shall give way to that
aircraft and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well
d. Section 91.113(f) in that each aircraft that is
being overtaken has the right-of-way and each pilot of an
overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well
e. Section 91.113(g) in that landing. aircraft, while
on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way
over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface, except
that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an
aircraft off the runway surface which has already landed and is
attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach. When two
or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of
landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-of-way,
but it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of
another which is on final approach to land or to overtake that
Taking into consideration all of the circumstances of this
case, we propose, pursuant to the authority vested in the
Administrator by 49 L.S.C. Section 44709, to issue an Order
suspending any and all Private Pilot certificates you hold for a
period of ninety (90) days.
An Order for such suspension will be issued unless, on or prior to
fifteen (15) days after your receipt of this letter, you elect to
proceed in accordance with the enclosed information with respect to
The above leaves us truly
puzzled… how can the FAA lay blame when the NTSB has
not published a proper conclusion? Isn't that
pre-judging the investigation before it is complete... and AFTER
Pierce had cooperated and taken a 609 ride, to boot? Worse, as
Pierce was following directions and turning as directed (and being
told he was doing a good job), how does he bear the responsibility
in this? Could it be that the FAA is looking to find fault with a
pilot who might otherwise have a hell of a lawsuit against the FAA?
And, if he is responsible, why did the FAA ALSO take action against
a Senior Controller working the tower (but on the phone to senior
authorities, coordinating a number of issues as required by his
position). With all the guys getting stepped on
(communications-wise) how can anyone even assert that Pierce or (RV
pilot) Morrison heard the instructions (and mind you, in such
circumstances, one does NOT acknowledge an instruction due to the
high intensity of the traffic)? Worse: how could anyone in the
tower NOT see these aircraft converging and make a warning
call (or did they try and get stepped on)?
Better yet, one wonders how
a draggy 108 HP Piper Clipper overtakes a speedy 160HP
RV-6A… as alleged in the FAA accusation?
It may not be impossible, but it sure seems improbable…
and some of the controllers we interviewed agree that this is not
how it played out.
Once again; we have more questions than answers... but if you
stop by to read the next installment, you'll get a chance
to see what the actual controllers who have worked the
Lakeland Tower during Sun 'n Fun have to say about it...
Statement to ANN: From the Family Of the Late Jerry
ANN has received the following statement from the family of the
pilot killed in the RV-6A discussed above. Attorney/Pilot Jim
Furman sent this to us to explain their position and also
told ANN that the FAA has been notified that a suit will be
filed on behalf of the Morrison family. Furman noted that
the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In will be sued, as well.
"Mrs. Morrison is very concerned for those like her husband,
who loved aviation. Sun N Fun is one of the premier venues where
pilots and aviation enthusiast gather each year. A lot of planning
and support from the community, and the government go into making
the event happen. If any place that pilots gather should be safe
and well organized, it should be at such an event. Unfortunately at
Sun N Fun 2002, reasonable measures that could have been taken were
not. The arrival procedure was not well thought out or staffed.
This created a hazardous condition and was the cause of the mid-air
between the two aircraft."
Next: The controllers
speak… forcefully, passionately and scathingly
about working the Lakeland tower during the annual "Sun 'n Fun
Die-In," and their frustration with the roadblocks they encounter
in dealing with a senior Sun 'n Fun honcho, who ALSO works for
the FAA... can you say "conflict of interest," anyone? I knew that