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  1. Transportation

Restricted airspace, no tower can cause problems at Tampa's Peter O. Knight Airport

TAMPA — Before Louis Caporicci and Kevin Carreno climbed into the cockpit of a Cessna 340 last month, before confusion at Peter O. Knight Airport led their plane and another to take off at the same time, before their plane veered into the ground and erupted in a fireball, killing the two friends, there was a warning.

"This airport needs a tower."

The message, from a veteran pilot with thousands of hours of flying time, came after he was involved in a near midair collision over Peter O. Knight in January 2014. The plane that nearly hit him never signaled it was trying to land, he wrote in a federal safety report.

The pilot also warned that tight restrictions on where planes can fly near Peter O. Knight make airspace around the Davis Islands airport "cramped," increasing the danger when communication breaks down. He called the situation "treacherous."

Like most general aviation airports, Peter O. Knight does not have a control tower. That means the pilots who fly there, most of them in small recreational planes, must talk to each other to operate safely.

But unlike other general aviation airports, Peter O. Knight is surrounded by some of the most regulated airspace in Florida.

Seven miles to the northwest is Tampa International Airport. MacDill Air Force Base sits 6 miles to the southwest. Both are surrounded by airspace that pilots can enter only if they're granted permission by those airports' control towers. A shipping channel adjacent to the airport further complicates operations.

Most days, planes navigate the towerless airspace without problems. There are an estimated 60,000 takeoffs and landings at Peter O. Knight each year, and the overwhelming majority are incident-free.

But in the moments before the deadly crash on March 18, there was a communications failure between the two planes taking off at Peter O. Knight, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation has found. MacDill's controlled airspace factored in, too, the NTSB report says.

At least a dozen times in the past 10 years, those two issues have caused major accidents, near-misses and embarrassing but dangerous mishaps at the small airport, records show.

"Airspace restrictions are a challenge at Peter O. Knight," said John Cox, a former US Airways pilot and former safety official at the Air Line Pilots Association who now lives in St. Petersburg. "It can and has been for years used safely, but it is challenging."

• • •

Even from the sky, some views are better than others.

The scenic entrance into Peter O. Knight — the Tampa skyline, giant cruise ships that line Port Tampa Bay, runways just feet from the blue waters of Hillsborough Bay — is why recreational pilots like Bill Moffatt enjoy landing planes there.

But its location between two major air hubs creates obstacles.

"You've got to watch it," said Moffatt, 51, of Bartow. "It is unique, there's no doubt about it. I think a lot of people probably shy away from that airport because of that."

Marty Lauth, a retired Federal Aviation Administration controller who worked at airports in Orlando and Miami, said he has never seen an urban general aviation airport in Florida where pilots must maneuver around such expansive airspace restrictions without a tower.

"Not to this extent. Not with a military base. Not with a downtown. Not next to a major airport like Tampa International," said Lauth, now a professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

"I have seen some busy (general aviation) airports that are in and around a major metropolitan area, but there's usually a control tower."

An airport can apply to the Federal Contract Tower program and the FAA will conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see if a tower is needed. The federal government can help fund the cost. Or, airports can choose to construct a tower and pay for staffing themselves.

Peter O. Knight has not asked the FAA to evaluate whether the airport needs a tower, said John Tiliacos, who oversees the airport as vice president of operations and customer service at Tampa International.

The FAA said it is investigating the March crash for any safety concerns at the airport.

"Peter O. Knight is a very safe airport," Tiliacos said. "The vast majority of pilots that operate into and out of our airports do so safely, they follow published procedures, and when you look at our records, it reflects that."

Across the bay, St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted Airport has a tower. It's busier, with about 90,000 takeoffs and landings a year, though there are also fewer limitations on pilots flying around it.

And a tower can't prevent every tragedy. Since 2012, there have been two fatal crashes at Albert Whitted.

And a tower wouldn't have stopped a deadly crash at Peter O. Knight in 2006, when a plane experiencing engine trouble hit a house just beyond the runway.

But the unusual restrictions at Peter O. Knight have caused repeated problems there.

Because it doesn't have a tower, the federal government doesn't log dangerous incidents and near-misses at Peter O. Knight, only physical accidents. The airport does not track them, either.

Pilots can self-report unsafe actions to a national database maintained by NASA. The reports are filed anonymously and the FAA does not monitor or verify them. But they're highly technical and often filled out meticulously.

Since 2009, pilots on five occasions have reported narrowly avoiding catastrophes at Peter O. Knight, including three near midair collisions between planes during takeoffs or landings. In each case, there was a failure to properly communicate. In most cases, Peter O. Knight's unique surroundings factored in, as well.

During the same time period, pilots have not reported any such incidents at Albert Whitted, or at Clearwater Airpark or at Tampa Executive Airport, two other local airports without towers.

In February 2015, for example, a plane flew less than 100 feet over an unsuspecting tugboat on the channel adjacent to Peter O. Knight. The encounter "scared the (expletive) out of the pilot in the vessel's wheelhouse," according to a safety report filed with NASA.

The channel also was the site of a crash investigated by the NTSB in 2008. A pilot didn't see the mast of a sailboat while landing and hit it, injuring two.

Incidents occur because of the airport's proximity to MacDill. A 2014 safety handbook from the airbase on avoiding midair collisions said Peter O. Knight "presents the greatest potential for conflict" with MacDill planes and it urged civilian pilots to "exercise extreme vigilance and caution."

That danger was nearly realized in 2011, when a plane from Peter O. Knight flew into the path of a C-17, a large, four-engine military transport plane. Neither plane was harmed.

MacDill's runway lines up almost perfectly with one at Peter O. Knight, and the two airports "are often mistaken or confused" with each other, the handbook said. In 2012, a civilian pilot headed to Peter O. Knight from Miami accidentally landed without clearance at the airbase, causing security concerns.

And Air Force pilots aren't immune to the confusion. In 2012, a tired pilot landed a C-17, with a 170-foot wingspan, on one of Peter O. Knight's tiny runways instead of at MacDill.

"The young pilot did a good job landing, albeit on the wrong strip," Gen. James Mattis, then head of Central Command, said at the time.

He should know. He was aboard the plane when it landed.

• • •

On most days, MacDill is just another nuisance for pilots flying into and out of Peter O. Knight.

But on March 18, MacDill's restrictions may have launched a sequence of events that led to the death of the two pilots, Caporicci and Carreno.

Normally, MacDill's controlled airspace leaves some room — though not much — for pilots to take off from Peter O. Knight toward the southwest before they have to turn left away from the Air Force base.

On March 18, that would have been the preferred direction to take off, because wind was coming from the southwest. Pilots generally take off into the wind to maximize airflow over the wings.

But with the Tampa Bay AirFest at MacDill that weekend, a flight restriction extended to cover the southern end of both of Peter O. Knight's runways, the NTSB investigation said.

That was critical, said Al Diehl, a former NTSB crash investigator and a pilot familiar with Peter O. Knight. It likely forced runway traffic north — where the airport's two runways intersect.

"There's no way in hell you're going to take off (to the southwest) because then you would be in violation of the (flight restriction)," Diehl said.

About 11:30 a.m. March 18, two planes, a Cessna 172 and the Cessna 340 operated by Caporicci and Carreno, took off at almost the same time on different runways heading toward the intersection point.

Disaster still could have been avoided if the pilots had spoken to each other using the ground frequency. Or if there was a tower to direct them.

Pilots in the Cessna 172 told NTSB investigators that they announced their takeoff plans through a ground frequency, but they never heard Caporicci and Carreno. When the Cessna 172 took off, Caporicci and Carreno left the ground at almost the same time, then took a hard left turn, then the plane inverted and crashed nose-first into the ground.

The Cessna 172 was not damaged.

Reached at his office, the owner of the Cessna 172, Paul Gallizzi, said the NTSB and his attorneys advised him not to comment on the crash.

Moffatt, the Bartow pilot, said the accident disturbed him when he read about it. He has seen it before, pilots skipping a simple but critical step. But it should be a teaching point, he said, not a reason to change things at the airport.

"I don't think there's any more danger at Peter O. Knight than any other airport," Moffatt said, "if you follow the rules."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com and Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com.

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