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RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Poor weather, a critical shortage of fuel and general confusion led to an incident last year in which an F-15E narrowly avoided a British passenger jet, according to a British government incident report.

The near-miss occurred Jan. 27, 2005, when two F-15E jets strayed into civilian airspace and one came within roughly a half mile of an Embraer 145, which had 39 people on board. The incident occurred in one of the busiest airspaces in the United Kingdom.

The British Air Accident Investigation Branch investigated the incident and found a state of “general confusion” followed after the two F-15Es had completed their training mission over Otterburn Range, in the north of England near Newcastle. The word “confusion” was used 12 times in the 12-page report.

“The crews’ inability to fly either as a coherent formation or as two independent aircraft … were major contributory factors to the ensuing general confusion,” the report states.

The 48th Fighter Wing acknowledged errors on its part, saying it had given pilots additional training in response to the incident.

“We are not perfect,” said 48th Fighter Wing spokesman Senior Airman Wes Auldridge. “When mistakes do happen we take the incidents very seriously and we hold our people accountable.”

The pilots in this case, however, were not reprimanded, Auldridge said. Rather, the 48th conducted an internal investigation that was “used to improve knowledge and training,” he said. That training included getting the pilots “up to speed on what the U.K. flying rules are,” Auldridge said.

“We are absolutely committed to safety in flight,” he said.

As the American fighter jets were heading back to RAF Lakenheath, poor weather led to a backup and the formation commander decided the jets should travel to RAF Valley, which was their predetermined back-up landing site. However, the jets had less fuel than they needed for the diversion.

“The incorrect assessment of the weather conditions for the aircrafts’ return led to the departure from Otterburn Range with less than the planned diversion fuel requirements,” the British report states. “The formation commander continued in the hope that they would be able to land at Lakenheath despite their obviously low fuel state.”

The situation was exacerbated by communication difficulties.

“Confusion delayed the handover of positive control between Lakenheath and London Military at a crucial stage of the diversion,” the report states. “Most notably, because they were critically short of fuel, the aircraft climbed through their cleared flight level, without transponding, entered controlled airspace and conflicted with the Embraer 145.”

The captain of the civilian aircraft reported the F-15E passed the nose of his plane about 100 feet below and no more than 200 yards ahead, according to the report.

The two American fighters ultimately landed safely at RAF Valley.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch conducted a probe into a similar incident between an F-15E and a civilian airliner in November 2000.


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