The accident that took the lives of Collins, Luscher, and Hock quickly gave way to a profusion of litigation. The first lawsuit was filed within 20 days. In the ensuing months, the litigation would grow into a finger-pointing affair of claims and counter claims, offense and defense, as various parties weighed in. Hock’s father, Edward, blamed Collins, Fowler, the company Fowler worked for, and the school that trained Hock. The widows of Collins and Luscher blamed Hock and the flight school, as well as Fowler and the company Fowler worked for. Fowler and the company he worked for blamed the pilots. The insurance company for the hospital where Collins’s plane hit blamed them all, as did five hospital employees who filed separate lawsuits after being hurt in the explosion of Collins’s plane.
The buzz around the case was heightened by the presence of the city’s top personal injury lawyers. Robert Clifford signed on to represent Christine Collins. Former U.S. attorney Fred Foreman, a close friend of the radio star, went aboard as cocounsel, and his firm handled Collins’s estate, reportedly valued at an estimated $2 million. Sharon Hock’s father, Edward Hock, retained another prominent personal injury firm, Corboy & Demetrio. Luscher’s wife, Risé Barkhoff, hired a noted aviation lawyer, Robert Glenn. (Even three of the injured hospital staff hired a lawyer with at least a little reflected stature: Patrick Salvi, the brother of Al Salvi, the former state representative and onetime Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.)
Timothy Evans, the chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, assigned the case to himself, and has presided over settlement talks, which could soon yield an agreement.
But it is the next phase of the litigation that could be the most important. Earlier this year, the parties stopped fighting with one another long enough to sue the FAA in federal court in a case that effectively calls into question the safety of small airports. This lawsuit alleges that the FAA was ultimately at fault for the Collins crash because it had failed to provide the Waukegan airport with radar and had failed to properly manage the private air traffic control companies it hired to handle small airports. “Obviously this is pure negligence,” says Michael Demetrio, one of the lawyers representing Hock. “If the public knew how air traffic control was being handled, they would be outraged.”
On the other hand, several studies back the safety and cost-effectiveness of the privatization program. The FAA’s spokesman for the Great Lakes region, Tony Molinaro, says, “Safety rates at small and large airports are comparable. Accident rates are so tiny that it’s hard to make meaningful comparisons. . . . [S]afety rates at any airport, whether large, medium, or small, are still very, very good.” (According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the private planes and corporate jets that make up “general aviation” and are mostly housed at small airports have an accident rate of 6.56 per 100,000 flight hours, compared to an accident rate of 0.195 per 100,000 flight hours for scheduled commercial planes. Of course, numerous other factors may contribute to the difference, including plane size, airport traffic, and pilot experience.)
The federal suit isn’t likely to be concluded for at least another two years, and in the meantime, as the case develops, the circumstances surrounding the crash will be re-examined and rehashed. But what happened that day is basically known. The sequence of events is available through police reports, witness statements, radio transcripts, and other documents found in court records, as well as separate investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Lake County coroner’s office. Even with the known facts, however, establishing blame is tricky. What is undeniable is that the events of that day make up a tale of human error compounded by fateful timing and bad luck, a combination that was, on that winter afternoon, deadly.
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Bob Collins and Herman Luscher took off in the Zlin about 10:30 that morning for their lunch date in Sheboygan, 50 miles north of Milwaukee. They touched down about noon and, meeting their friends, headed for Trattoria Stefano’s, a slice of authentic Northern Italian dining in the Bratwurst Capital of the World. After a 90-minute lunch, at which no alcohol was served, Collins and Luscher took off for their return trip. On their way home, Collins flew down the shoreline, making routine contact with Milwaukee air traffic controllers as he flew through their airspace. At 2:55 p.m., 15 miles northeast of the Waukegan airport, he radioed the tower in preparation for his landing.
It had been a moderately busy day for the air traffic controllers in the 74-foot tower on the south end of the Waukegan airport. The airport handles about 100,000 takeoffs and landings a year. In the hour preceding the Collins crash, controllers handled about 60 aircraft, well within the normal range. On a clear day, controllers in the tower, usually two at a time, can see the Loop skyline to the south, the smokestacks of southern Wisconsin to the north, and far into Lake Michigan to the east. Eunice Philbin-King arrived at 6 a.m. that day for the early shift, and left at 2 p.m. Greg Fowler went on duty at 8 a.m., first working ground control, directing traffic on the runways, and then, at 11 a.m., local control, directing planes in the air on their inbound and outbound patterns. He didn’t break for lunch, which wasn’t unusual. George Edler, who, like Fowler, got his start in the Vietnam War, arrived at noon for his shift. Fowler was the controller in charge.
When Collins radioed in, Fowler asked, “Are you coming down the shoreline?” Affirmative, Collins responded, though radar data culled from other facilities in the region later showed that he was actually four and a half miles east of the shore, over Lake Michigan. The shoreline is a marker commonly used by controllers and pilots. Fowler told Collins to report back when he crossed the shoreline to make his final approach and directed him to northeast-angled runway 23, four miles from the lake.
About four minutes later, Fowler asked Collins where he was. Collins said he was “a mile or two off the lake . . . off the shoreline.” Radar data later showed that Collins was 2.7 miles from the shore. Fowler cleared Collins to land, telling him to keep his speed up “as much as feasible.” “Pedaling as fast as I can,” Collins replied.
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While Collins was headed toward the runway from the northeast, student pilot Sharon Hock was practicing takeoffs and landings with her instructor, Scott Chomicz, in a four-seat, single-engine Cessna 172 belonging to American Flyers, a training school. Hock would take off going southwest, make four right turns to complete a rectangular pattern, and land from the northeast.
Between 1:38 and 2:30 p.m., Hock landed and took off nine times. Chomicz then got out and listened on the radio as Hock made two more loops. It wasn’t the first time she had flown alone-she’d first soloed three weeks earlier.
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At 2:58:07, Hock was cleared to take off for her final loop before she would pick up Chomicz and fly to Palwaukee, where the airplane was based. She took off to the southwest and banked right to go into the pattern that would bring her around to the other end of the runway to land. After a second right turn, Hock, north of the runway, was now flying northeast. Collins was flying southwest toward the runway. Two minutes later, Fowler told Hock to let him know when she saw an aircraft on final approach-meaning Collins’s plane.
A minute later, Hock told Fowler that she didn’t see the Zlin-or any traffic. She asked Fowler to “call [her] base”-to tell her when to turn south and then west for her final approach. Fowler agreed. Hock was now 1.75 miles northeast of the approach end of the runway. Collins was 5.3 miles away, but traveling much faster than Hock. Fowler could not yet see Collins’s plane, and he had lost sight of Hock when she was about a mile and a half northeast of the field, possibly because of the haze creeping in from the shoreline.
At 3:01 p.m., Fowler asked Collins how far out from the shoreline he was. “Just crossing the shoreline,” Collins said. According to radar data examined later, Collins was still eight-tenths of a mile east of the shoreline, about 4.8 miles from the approach end of the runway. Hock was still waiting for Fowler’s signal to make the first of her two remaining right-hand turns that would bring her back toward the airport. At 3:02:12 p.m., trying to determine her location, Fowler asked Hock if she had passed the shoreline. “Gettin’ there,” Hock replied. She was 1.6 miles inland from the shoreline. Fowler then advised Hock to “start your base leg now”-to begin heading south in preparation for her final approach. He based his order on Collins’s last report of his location, according to a statement he later gave to investigators. At about the same time, Collins crossed the shoreline.
Thirty-one seconds after Fowler told Hock to turn, a student pilot in a Cessna following in Hock’s pattern told Fowler, “We have the Cessna . . . we have the landing traffic in sight.”
Fowler asked: “Is it the low-wing or the Cessna?” In other words, is it Collins or Hock?
“It’s the Cessna.”
“Follow in behind the Cessna; you’re number three,” Fowler said. In his mind, Collins was out front, Hock would turn into the pattern behind Collins, and then the second Cessna would follow Hock. Radar data later revealed that, at 3:03:05, Collins was three miles from the end of the runway. Three seconds later, Hock had completed her final turn and was coming in on her approach, slightly in front of Collins, though they did not see each other. She was about 2.7 miles from the end of the runway.
At 3:03:19, Collins reported “negative contact with the Cessna in front of [him]”-in other words, he didn’t see Hock’s plane. “You should be number one, Bob,” Fowler said. In Fowler’s mind, Hock was behind Collins. At 3:03:27, Collins said, “Then we have the traffic in sight, thanks.” Collins likely saw the second Cessna to his right preparing to line up third.
“Something started to click something was wrong,” Fowler later told federal investigators. Another pilot later said: “You could sense the controller trying to keep it together.”
Fowler grabbed some binoculars. He saw Collins’s plane, but not Hock’s. Paul Pieri, who was instructing the second student pilot, recalled to investigators that his pupil, spotting both Hock and Collins, remarked: “Look! It looks like they’re coming together.”
At 3:03:38, Fowler asked Hock to “advise when you turn final.” Hock told Fowler that she was already on final. “Thank you,” he said. Eleven seconds later, Fowler asked Collins, “Do you see a Cessna in front of you?”
Within seconds, the two planes collided.
* * *
The planes were about 650 feet above the ground when they struck. Both likely lost power immediately. Several witnesses reported that the Cessna appeared to be slightly beneath the Zlin, and that it looked as if their wings had touched. Paint scrapes indicated that the Zlin’s wood and fiberglass propeller hit the Cessna’s left wing flap, and that the Zlin’s right wing hit the Cessna’s tail. Metal pieces flew off one of the planes. Hock’s plane spiraled down immediately; Collins’s continued for a moment, and then nose-dived.
Each plane went down in a slightly different direction. According to witnesses, Hock’s plane clipped a tree as it nose-dived into the parking lot of the Sheridan Health Care Center, a nursing home with 210 residents; hit two cars; and skipped through some trees and bushes to come to rest in the middle of Elim Avenue in a residential neighborhood of Zion. Collins’s plane seemed to level off for a moment after the collision, then plunged onto the roof of the five-story Midwestern Regional Medical Center, home of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
While hitting a hospital is one of the worst imaginable scenarios, the calm with which Collins reported the midair collision led to speculation that he had actively tried to avoid crashing into homes or a busy street. Some said he might even have been trying to land on the hospital roof. In any case, hospital officials, well aware of their proximity to the airport, had reinforced the roof with a plane crash in mind.
The Zlin ripped through the hospital roof, poking into an unoccupied fifth floor conference room. The plane came to a stop on an 18-inch steel beam. Had it not been for the beam, the plane likely would have crashed through into the bone marrow transplant unit on the fourth floor. The plane began leaking fuel, which exploded 45 seconds later, blowing out the fifth floor windows and bowing the walls.
Hospital workers called a code red and began assembling patients in the emergency room for a head count, then evacuated the building.
Rescue workers making their way up the stairwells were met by torrents of water and smoke when they got to the third floor. The sprinkler system effectively contained the fire to the fifth floor. Firefighters went up with a hose line to fight the fire from within, while an aerial truck arrived to douse the flames from above.
The bodies of Collins and Luscher were found under debris to the right of the plane’s wreckage. “It was just a mass of wires and instruments and everything tangled and destroyed,” Lake County coroner Barbara Richardson said later.
Three blocks away, Hock’s Cessna sat upside down on the street, resting on its tail, the front half utterly crumpled.
* * *
When a celebrity with an experienced pilot as his passenger collides with a solo student pilot, the presumption of blame is likely to rest with the student pilot. Indeed, that is the way the early media coverage-driven in part by leaks from investigators-shaped up. The headline in the Tribune three days after the crash said: “Radar Hints at Student Pilot Error; Data Suggests Airplane Flew in Front of Collins.” The story was picked up by the Associated Press and sent out worldwide.
Undeterred, Edward Hock filed the first lawsuit, a wrongful death action against Fowler and his company, Midwest Air Traffic Control Service. Collins was added as a defendant a week later, once his estate was officially opened. Hock’s suit essentially blamed Collins for misreporting his position and not keeping a proper lookout; blamed Fowler for not properly keeping the aircraft separated; and blamed Midwest for not properly training and supervising Fowler.
Christine Collins’s lawyer Bob Clifford shot back: “To file a suit in the absence of a complete and thorough investigation is injudicious and imprudent to do at this time.”
Fowler came under scrutiny next. As a matter of routine, a Lake County coroner’s jury was convened that April to determine whether the deaths in the crash were accidental. Fowler appeared before the six-person jury. Coroner Barbara Richardson, a close friend of Bob Collins and an occasional guest on his show, asked Fowler several questions about the tower’s visitor policy and whether any unauthorized people were in the tower at the time of the crash. But he refused to answer any questions, which was his right. More than a year after the crash, Michael Demetrio, one of Hock’s lawyers, told The News Sun in Waukegan that Fowler may have been distracted by a guest, and that Fowler needed “to identify who else was in the tower.” Fowler, who is expected to give a deposition this fall, would not comment for this article. One of his lawyers, Fred Meier, says he has no knowledge or reason to believe that anyone other than Fowler and Edler was in the tower at the time of the crash. No evidence has emerged to indicate otherwise. (A badly shaken Fowler received counseling after the crash. He is now back at his job. Richardson has since retired.)
The coroner’s inquest did yield some additional details about what happened that day. It was confirmed that no alcohol was served at the lunch in Sheboygan. Also, Collins was found to have been carrying nearly $7,000 in cash, including 68 hundred-dollar bills.
Two months later, Christine Collins sued Hock, Fowler, Midwest, and American Flyers, Hock’s flight school. Collins essentially blamed Hock for misreporting her position and not keeping a proper lookout; American Flyers for not properly training and supervising Hock; Fowler for not properly keeping the aircraft separated; and Midwest for not properly training and supervising Fowler.
At a news conference announcing the suit, Christine Collins read a statement that said in part: “[T]he accident was an avoidable event. It is my hope that this lawsuit will raise the level of aviation safety and ensure that accidents such as this will be eliminated.”
Clifford called Hock a “novice” pilot who “cut in front of Mr. Collins,” though the lawyer primarily blamed Fowler. He also said, “If it was the case that Bob Collins did something wrong that day, we would close the books on this. Bob Collins did nothing wrong that day.”
A couple of weeks later, Luscher’s widow, Risé Barkhoff, sued Hock, Fowler, Midwest, and American Flyers.
The hospital’s insurance company also sued, blaming all parties and seeking compensation for $32 million in property damages. And five hospital employees injured by the explosion of Collins’s plane filed their own suits. Patrick Salvi, a Waukegan lawyer representing three of the employees, said at the time, “The exclusive fault of this tragedy falls on the shoulders of air traffic controller Greg Fowler and student pilot Sharon Hock.”
That was not what federal investigators would find, though.
* * *
Midair collisions are rare; around the country, there were ten last year, and an average of 16 a year over the past ten years. Midairs account for fewer than one percent of all aviation accidents. In this case, it took an extraordinary set of circumstances for such a collision to occur-or, looked at another way, it took a series of mundane errors that individually might ordinarily have had no consequence. Collins misreported his position several times in his contacts with Fowler. It’s not clear why his reporting was off, though it is not unusual for pilots to misinterpret or misjudge their location in the sky. Fowler compounded the error by not demanding more precise reports from not only Collins, but Hock. For example, when Fowler asked Hock if she had passed the shoreline, she said, “Gettin’ there.” Based on that report, Fowler told Hock to turn.
Of course, Fowler was not plotting the courses on radar. As at many small airports, “visual flight rules” apply at Waukegan. Fowler’s responsibility was simply to sequence the planes for landing. It is up to pilots to “see and avoid” other pilots.
And how could the pilots not have seen each other? Again, it was probably a series of seemingly small things coming together. Each pilot may have had trouble seeing the other’s white plane in the haze. Pieri, the instructor in the second Cessna that day, told investigators that the sun gets low in the sky at that time of day and can get in a pilot’s eyes on final approach. And each plane may have been in a blind spot of the other. The Zlin’s wings protrude from the bottom of the plane’s body, making it difficult to see below the plane, whereas the Cessna’s wings protrude from the top, creating a blind spot above it. It is believed that at the collision, the Cessna was slightly below the Zlin.
What’s more, with both planes on final approach, both pilots may have been focusing straight ahead, no longer looking for traffic. Given the speed and flight paths of the planes, Collins had seven seconds or less to see Hock and react, according to Kevin Durkin, one of Collins’s lawyers. Given all the other factors, the lawyer says, that was not enough time.
These were the matters safety board investigators grappled with as they sifted through the facts and tried to re-create the accident in their minds. Sixteen months after the crash, the board finally released its report on the “probable cause” of the accident. And when it did, its conclusions were a surprise.
* * *
In its final report, the safety board ruled that the probable cause was Collins’s “failure to maintain clearance from the other airplane.” The board added, “Factors relating to the accident were the pilot’s poor visual lookout, and the airport control tower local controller’s failure to provide effective sequencing.” The safety board did not fault Hock.
In a letter to the FAA asking that radar be installed at 87 small airports, the safety board offered a fuller explanation of its rationale: “Because [Fowler] did not see the airplanes, his erroneous estimate of [Hock’s] progress since losing visual contact and the pilots’ imprecise position reports were the only information that he had with which to judge the proper sequence of the airplanes. His initial decision to sequence [Collins] first was apparently based on his incorrect belief that [Collins] was closer to the airport than he actually was. Subsequent communications between [Fowler] and [Collins] confirm that the airplane was not nearing the runway as quickly as the sequencing plan would require; however, [Fowler] did not amend the sequence.”
The safety board’s failure to fault Hock in its final report was unusual, because the board typically finds all pilots in a crash culpable in some way. “I do feel like she’s been vindicated, but it doesn’t change anything,” Edward Hock told the Chicago Sun-Times after the report was issued. (Hock declined to comment for this article.)
Collins’s lawyers still say they don’t see it that way, but in response to the safety board’s report, Clifford maintained his focus on Fowler, saying, “It should be noted that neither Bob Collins nor the student pilot involved in the crash [was] asked for any detail beyond a general location.” Today, Clifford sounds a conciliatory note. “The two [pilots] may indeed just be innocent participants because she’s doing what she’s told, he’s doing what he’s told,” he says.
With both sides teaming up to go after the FAA in federal court, Michael Demetrio prefers to show a united front. “Do I believe that under the rules of flight Mr. Collins’s failure to look out was a cause of the crash? Yes, I do,” Demetrio says. “But now, with all of the research and all of the investigation we’ve done, it is equally clear that the tower put him in a position where he should not have been.”
The owners of the planes each had a $1-million liability policy, as did Midwest. Three million dollars is not very much in a wrongful death case with three fatalities. The hospital’s insurance company alone is seeking $32 million in property damages. The situation has made settlement talks difficult.
The only hope of getting the kind of financial judgment the lawyers are looking for is with the FAA. “Obviously, they’re looking for a deeper pocket,” says Ralph Brill, a professor in the Chicago–Kent College of Law. “It’s a practical strategy. Nevertheless, they can’t win unless [the FAA is] at fault.”
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And in a larger sense, the lawsuit is really about how the FAA oversees small airports. Waukegan Regional is a good example. When it opened in the 1940s, it was a dirt strip used mostly by crop-dusters. As Lake County grew, so did Waukegan Regional. In 1988, the airport’s first control tower was built. Before that, it had no tower and no air traffic controllers. It was really “see and avoid.”
That setup is still common today. About 4,760 of the nation’s 5,300 public-use airports do not have towers or controllers. As airports grow in size, they can acquire both if the FAA sees fit. But a radar system does not necessarily go with the package.
As the potential seriousness of the situation that afternoon dawned on Fowler, he reached for a pair of binoculars. He did not look at a radar screen, because there was no radar at the airport. In the aftermath of the crash, this seemed to shock the public, the politicians, and the press, but the FAA does not provide radar to airports it doesn’t deem big and busy enough, even if they have control towers.
A high-profile crash can change that, though. Dan Bitton, who operates the airport’s charter and jet fuel service, had lobbied the FAA to install a radar at Waukegan since 1991, to no avail. Waukegan’s airport manager said a few days after the crash that airport officials had pushed the FAA for radar five years prior. In a pattern seen across the country, the FAA relented only when the political heat-including a threat from Michael Jordan to remove his Gulfstreams from Waukegan-got to be too much after the crash. In late March 2000, the FAA announced that the airport would receive a Terminal Automated Radar Display System, or TARDIS. TARDIS is not itself a radar system. It does not generate its own images, but reproduces a feed sent over phone lines from the radars of larger nearby airports; in this case, O’Hare. The images displayed are not in real time, but on a slight delay, and they do not show altitude or speed. But the system does give controllers “an extra set of eyes,” says the FAA’s spokesman Tony Molinaro.
(In the last line of its news release announcing that TARDIS would be placed at Waukegan, the FAA added that the decision was “not the consequence of any accident.” Hardly anyone believed that, but Molinaro said at the time that the decision was made based on agency studies. Now he says, “We had to evaluate and see if the TARDIS system would even be helpful. . . . [A]fter the accident we did re-evaluate.”)
The safety board has said that the Collins-Hock crash could have been prevented if a radar display system had been in place. “[T]he [controller] could have confirmed the pilot’s position reports and established a more effective sequencing plan, thereby preventing the accident,” the board said in its April 27, 2001, letter to the FAA. “Additionally, the [controller] would not have had to contact the aircraft as frequently to determine their positions and to confirm their sighting of other traffic, thereby keeping the communications frequency open.”
On the basis of this crash and some others, the safety board recommended that the FAA install radar systems at 87 airports. Of these, 25 were outfitted with radar systems in 2001 and 2002. The FAA says that 78 airports will be covered by 2005. The lawyers suing the FAA say the agency’s postcrash actions just go to show that it should have had radar installed at Waukegan in the first place. The FAA says it cannot afford to put radar in every airport, and Waukegan did not have enough traffic to warrant it.
The situation at Waukegan typifies another dimension of the FAA’s operating procedures at small airports, procedures that became a source of contention in the federal lawsuit. In 1982, the FAA began hiring private companies, which use fewer and less expensive workers to manage air traffic control at small airports. The “contract tower program,” as it is known, has saved taxpayers millions of dollars and allowed the staffing of some small airports that otherwise would have gone without controllers. Waukegan’s tower is staffed by controllers who work for Midwest Air Traffic Control Service, one of three companies the FAA uses to manage the skies above small airports nationwide. By contrast, the control towers at O’Hare, Midway, and even the DuPage, Palwaukee, and Aurora airports, which are larger than Waukegan’s, are staffed by FAA employees.
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The FAA’S handling of small airports may appear alarming, but the contract tower program has consistently been found to be safe and cost-effective, passing muster with watchdogs such as then Vice-President Al Gore’s National Performance Review and the U.S. Congress’s General Accounting Office. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is often at odds with the FAA, has said that there is “no appreciable difference in the level of service provided by contract towers versus that provided by FAA-staffed towers.” And the office of the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation has consistently approved of the program, most recently in a July 2003 letter to Congress.
This summer, in a bill reauthorizing the FAA’s funding, the U.S. House and Senate passed provisions prohibiting the expansion of the contract tower program beyond its current 218 towers. But after the White House threatened to veto the bill because of the prohibition, Republicans pushed through language making 69 more towers eligible for the contract tower program, including those at DuPage, Palwaukee, and Aurora. The bill now must once again pass Congress.
The lawyers in the Collins case are not challenging the existence of the contract tower program, but what they say is the FAA’s lax oversight. “If you’re going to [contract out tower operations], then you have to do it the right way,” says Clifford. “And we’re not persuaded that they did do it the right way.”
It is not clear that the current spate of lawsuits against the FAA-including one brought by the families of seven people killed in a collision over Meigs Field in 1997, and a major challenge brought by the national controllers’ union-could result in the “qualitative change in general aviation safety across America” that Clifford says he is seeking. But that, he adds, in addition to a good financial settlement for his clients, “is where we’re going with this.”