Too Close For Comfort

TO HEAR THE AIR NATIONAL GUARD tell it, the chance encounter between two fighter jets and a passenger plane was more or less routine. No one was hurt when at least one of the F-16s closed in on a Boeing 727 some 22,000 feet above the Atlantic, and the fighter pilots reported nothing unusual when they returned to their base in Atlantic City. But in the cabin and cockpit of a Nations Air flight, bound for New York from San Juan, those frantic moments last week were anything but ordinary. The 50-year-old pilot, a onetime Vietnam flier with 35 years' experience, took the 727 into a steep plunge, radioing air-traffic controllers that his collision alarm had gone off. Two crew members collecting cups and cans were thrown to the cabin floor; so was a passenger coming down the aisle from the bathroom. For 15 seconds it seemed the plane might go down.

Coming just six months after the crash of TWA Flight 800--and the Internet conspiracy theories about errant missiles and military cover-ups-the close call in the skies off Atlantic City posed some troubling questions. Fighter jets and commercial planes have been involved in at least 14 crashes or near misses since the 1980s. Two days after the Nations Air incident, an American Eagle plane encountered four F-16s near Maryland. The National Guard and the air force abruptly suspended training flights along the Atlantic coastline.

Government investigators said the fliers from Atlantic City, known as the Jersey Devils, should have known better. The civilian airliner, carrying 77 passengers, was heading into military airspace last Wednesday afternoon when naval air controllers at Virginia's "Giant Killer" radar station told civilian controllers on Long Island that they were dosing off the zone known as Whiskey-107 Military controllers were aware of the commercial plane's path, but either the message wasn't relayed fast enough to the F-16 pilots--New Jersey guardsmen who were on a routine training mission,or they didn't listen. Moving to identify the civilian craft, one fighter fell in behind the airliner while the other hovered nearby: just how dosethe second F-16 was is in dispute (chart). There was heavy cloud cover, and the airliner's pilot never saw them. What did catch his attention was a noisy alarm system meant to warn pilots of impending collision. He dove at a rate of 4,000 feet per minute, then. climbed sharply and turned. Finally, the F-16s backed off.

Despite the drama, military officials say there was never any danger of a collision-1,000 feet is standard procedure. That infuriated Nations' chairman, Mark McDonald, who insisted that instruments on the plane indicated that the fighter jets were much too close. He accused the pilots of toying with the airliner for sport. Lt. Col. John Dwyer of New Jersey's military command said his pilots "don't fool around." Military air officials say the odds of disaster are slim. And this time, at least, in the skies off Atlantic City, nobody lost out on the gamble.

The two F-16 fighter pilot stying off Atlantic City should have known there was a commercial airliner nearby. But they came in for a closer look, provoking the Nations Air plane to take evasive action.

1. Fight paths Civilian air-traffic controllers in New York give permission for a Boeing 727 passenger jet to fly through the W-107 military-raining area. They alert navy air-traffic controllers at a base in Virginia. Two unarmed F-16 fighters from the New Jersey Air National Guard fly into the training area.

2a. Civilian account: two F-15s The pilots should have known they were approaching a civilian aircraft and may have been toying with it. Never closer than 1,000 feet, one F-16 follows the 727; the other sits off the airliner's right wingtip.

2b. Air Force account: one F-16 An unknown aircraft appears on F-16s' radars. One pilot investigates and sights the 727 while receiving word that there is a civilian plane in the area. He settles in 1,000 feet behind and 1,000 feet below the 727.

3. Evasive action The 727s collision-warning alarm goes off. The pilot takes emergency action, throwing the plane into a steep dive, then a steep climb and a right turn. The 727 later lands safely.