Near misses raise US air safety fears

The US Air Force has halted all exercises in training areas off the Atlantic coast after two near misses last week involving military jets and civilian passenger aircraft which have added to fears about flight safety in the crowded airspace of America's eastern seaboard.

In the first incident, on Wednesday, a Nations Air Boeing 727 en route from Puerto Rico to Kennedy Airport, New York, was forced to take emergency evasive action after being approached by two supersonic F-16 fighters from the New Jersey state Air Guard. Two days later, F-16s from the Maryland Air Guard flew close to an American Airlines commuter plane, also bound for JFK.

Both episodes, which took place in designated training areas off the coast, are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency conducting the thus far inconclusive probe into the explosion and crash of TWA flight 800 last July.

Amid conflicting accounts of what happened from the Navy, the Air Guard and civilian air traffic controllers, one thing is clear: confusion in the procedures that are supposed to prevent, or at least give clear warning of, incursions by scheduled passenger flights into military areas where exercises are in progress.

Yesterday the commander of the New Jersey Air Guard indignantly denied his pilots were "having fun" by trailing and intercepting the Nations Air plane. So close did they come, however, that the 727's automatic anti-collision alarm went off, forcing its pilot to plunge and then climb steeply, terrifying those on board and throwing two stewardesses and one passenger to the floor.

Under Air Guard regulations, military planes are supposed to stay 20 miles from civilian aircraft. It is not clear the F-16s had been told one would be in the area last Wednesday.

Concern over military interference with civilian flights off the East Coast has persisted ever since the TWA disaster off Long Island on 17 July last year. The NSTB and the FBI have failed to establish whether terrorism or mechanical failure was the cause. Rumours persist that the 747 was brought down accidentally by "friendly fire", by a test missile fired from a military plane or vessel.

Smithtown (AP) - Families of victims of TWA Flight 800 toured the hangar where the wreckage of the plane has been reconstructed, placing white roses on seats assigned to their loved ones. More than 150 relatives signed releases promising not to sue for mental distress from what they saw.

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