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Feds release preliminary report detailing deadly Dallas air show crash

The four-page report did not determine a cause for the midair collision.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its first investigative report Wednesday detailing the Dallas air show crash that killed six people earlier this month.

The Nov. 12 midair collision at Dallas Executive Airport involved two World War II-era planes, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and a Bell P-63 Kingcobra. One pilot was in the P-63 while two pilots and three crew members were in the B-17.

The Commemorative Air Force, which hosted the Wings Over Dallas show, identified those who died as Terry Barker, Craig Hutain, Kevin Michels, Dan Ragan, Len Root and Curt Rowe. No one on the ground was injured or killed.

The four-page preliminary report did not determine a cause for the crash, but it provides new details about the minutes and maneuvers leading up to the collision.

Videos from spectators show the P-63 banking and colliding with the B-17, which was flying straight. The impact disintegrated the P-63 and split the B-17 in two, with the front half of the fuselage exploding in flames as it hit the ground.

Debris was found strewn across the airport grounds, a nearby strip mall and U.S. Highway 67.

Position information, radio transmissions

Flight safety experts have said human error was likely a factor in the crash, but it’s unclear from videos whether that error was by one of the pilots, an official communicating with planes from the ground or someone involved in the preparations for the air show.

In the wreckage removed from the airport in the days following the crash, evidence included an electronic flight display from the B-17 and a GPS navigational unit from the P-63.

Both devices were damaged but sent to a lab in Washington, D.C., to determine what information, if any, could be retrieved. The B-17′s device contained position information, the report says, while the device recovered from P-63 “did not record any information for the accident flight.”

Recorded audio from the air show’s radio transmissions was able to provide insight into the crews’ final communications.

The P-63 was the third of three aircraft in a fighter formation and the B-17 was the lead of a five-ship bomber formation, both of which were being directed by an air boss, according to the report.

The air boss, who was not identified in the report, instructed both formations to travel southwest of the runway then return to the designated performance area, the report says.

He then told the fighter formation to transition into a “trail formation” and fly in front of the bomber formation. A trail formation is when aircraft fly directly under and behind a leading plane.

The fighter formation was told to proceed near the 500-foot show line, while the bomber formation was to travel along the 1,000-foot show line. These lines represented the distance that aircraft could be from the audience.

No altitude deconflictions — maneuvers to avoid the risk of accidents between aircraft flying in close proximity — were discussed before the flight or while the planes were in the air, according to the report.

When the fighter formation approached the performance area, the report says, the P-63 was in a left bank and collided with the left side of the B-17, just behind the wing section.

Experts have suggested the slower-moving B-17 could have been positioned in a blind spot for the pilot of the smaller, faster-moving P-63, but the report did not note any obstructions.

“The fighter was out of position and I don’t know why,” Jeff Guzzetti, a former air safety investigator who now consults on aviation safety issues, said earlier this month. “There has to be a reason for that. It may have been a blocked view or a mechanical error or medical emergency.”

Waiver outlined ‘Incident Action Plan’

On Oct. 11, officials with the Commemorative Air Force applied for a waiver for the show, which billed itself as “America’s Premier World War II Air Show.”

The waiver, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, allows certain aircraft operations outside of normal regulations. The North Texas Flight Standards District Office, a local field office of the FAA, approved the waiver Nov. 2.

The document, obtained by The Dallas Morning News, describes provisions the crews must follow, including maximum speeds and altitude the aircraft could operate.

It also outlines an “Incident Action Plan” to keep visitors safe by “implementing a rigorous safety and inspection program,” which included runway and aircraft inspections, securing perimeters for spectators, and emergency response crews at the event.

But the first day of the show, heavy rain forced the show to limit operations. The Commemorative Air Force did not respond to questions regarding gaps in the schedule or whether practice runs were canceled.

Full report expected in 12 to 18 months

The full investigation is expected to take 12 to 18 months.

Michael Graham, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said at a news conference shortly after the collision that the federal agency will “methodically and systematically” review all evidence and consider “all potential factors to determine probable cause,” such as airworthiness, operations, air traffic control and aircraft performance.

“This is the beginning of a long process,” Graham said. “We will not jump to any conclusions.”

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