AN OFFICIAL REPORT by the Joint Airmiss Working Group (JAWG) into a near-miss involving on RAF Tornado F.3 and a civilian Piper PA-34 Seneca strongly criticises the air traffic controllers. The report added that the controllers involved were not to undertake screening duties until their competence had been checked — all have now been returned to duty. The incident occurred on August 19, 1992 at 4,500ft (1,350m) over RAF Waddington when four jockeys, including Lester Piggott, were flying in the Seneca from Newmarket to York. The Coningsbybased 56R Sqn Tornado F.3 was one of four temporarily resident at Waddington for dissimilar air combat training with Harriers from 4 Sqn and 233 OCU. The Tornados had made a stream take-off from Waddington and initially been warned by one controller to stay below 3,000ft (900m) until the Seneca had cleared the airfield. However, a colleague then lifted the restriction without telling him and as a result the Tornados climbed higher and one was closing on the Seneca from below on a potential collision course. The pilot of one of the accompanying aircraft was first to see the Seneca and quickly warned the other Tornado pilot, who having seen the potential collision a split second before, rolled his Tornado away.
The enquiry found that there was a high ATC workload just before the collision with a stream of 45 messages in just 90 seconds between aircraft and various controllers. In addition, the supervising controller was distracted while arranging a relief break for staff. It was also pointed out that radar imagery may not have been clear on controllers’ screens because a back-up system was in use due to failure of Waddington’s primary radar. The controllers were found to be guilty of poor judgement and failure to pass sufficient information to the civilian pilot.
It is estimated that the two aircraft came within less than ten feet (3m) of each other and the JAWG put the incident in the rare A Category of air misses, a classification which means that there was a very real danger of collision had no avoiding action been taken. The Tornado passed so close that the occupants of the Seneca were hurled from their seats by the jetwash from the fighter and the pilot of the PA-34 thought that the two aircraft had hit each other. Both aircraft were undamaged, but because the Seneca pilot thought he had been hit, he immediately diverted into Waddington. An inspection by engineers showed the aircraft to be undamaged and the flight to York was resumed a short time later.