March 29, 2001

Chicago Sun-Times

Key errors in Collins crash

April 7, 2001


Air traffic control mistakes played key roles in the mid-air crash that killed radio host Bob Collins, his passenger and a student pilot, according to two aviation experts who reviewed a new federal report on the tragedy.

Collins' misreporting his Zlin 242L's position by about a mile also played into the chain of events that led to the crash over north suburban Zion on Feb. 8, 2000, said the experts, who reviewed the National Transportation Safety Board report for the Chicago Sun-Times.

An air traffic controller lost sight of both planes because weather conditions "got hazy near the water" of Lake Michigan, the federal report states. Then, based partly on the slightly errant positions Collins was reporting, the controller told student pilot Sharon Hock to make a turn that placed her Cessna 172P in Collins' path.

Of all three parties involved, Hock appears to bear the lesser--if not the least--amount of blame, the experts said. Also, both said a basic radar scope installed at Waukegan Regional Airport after the crash might have helped the controller.

"From what I saw, the student pilot was pretty good," said one of the experts, Chuck Eastlake, a 30-year pilot and aerospace engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. "She was following instructions and doing what she was told."

The most detailed account of events leading up to the crash is part of a safety board "factual report" released Friday. A final report expected to list probable causes might be released in three to four months, NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said. The head of the NTSB's West Chicago office declined to comment, and the lead investigator could not be reached.

But among the report's revelations is how much Collins misreported his Zlin 242L's position. He was attempting to land his plane from the east on Runway 23 at Waukegan, while Hock's Cessna was in a landing pattern that would require her to turn and follow him into the airport.

The pilots probably had trouble seeing each other because of blind spots caused by Collins low-wing Zlin being higher than Hock's high-wing Cessna, federal investigators have said.

About four minutes before impact, Collins said he was "just about a mile or two off [Lake Michigan] . . . off the shoreline," but radar records show him 2.7 miles from shore. Two minutes and 19 seconds before impact, he said he was "just crossing the shoreline" when he was 0.8 miles away.

Hock radioed that she couldn't see Collins' plane and requested help making the turn that would align her with the runway. After the crash, controller Greg Fowler told investigators that his decision to tell Hock to turn was "based on his estimate of the elapsed time before losing sight of [her plane] and the pilot's verbal report that he had crossed the shoreline."

Collins reported, "We have the Cessna," but he probably was seeing a second Cessna that was to land behind his plane and Hock's.

About 30 seconds before the impact, Fowler told investigators, "something started to click something was wrong." He used binoculars to look for the planes. He saw Collins but didn't see Hock.

Hock reported she was on final approach 20 seconds before Collins' plane collided with hers from the rear. Upon impact, Collins radioed that he "just had a mid-air." Fowler responded, "We just saw that."

Collins and his passenger, pilot Herman Luscher, died when the Zlin fell onto the roof of Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion. Hock's plane hit a street near a nursing home.

The report also shows that Collins had traces of over-the-counter cold medicine in his body, but it isn't believed to have impaired his judgment. "It's very common," said Keith Mortag, the second expert consulted by the Sun-Times. He is a flight instructor with the Southern Illinois University School of Aviation.

Lawsuits being handled by well-known personal injury firms in Chicago are pending. Attorneys on both sides said Friday they plan to use the report's findings.

Contributing: Robert C. Herguth

[Chicago ATC News]