The pilots of four A-10 jets that buzzed Bank of America Stadium in August were "careless and reckless" in flying lower and faster than authorized, according to a preliminary report obtained by the Observer under the Freedom of Information Act.
The report, as well as emails sent by Air Force leaders, indicate the fighter planes may have been flying as low as 500 feet above the ground. That's lower than the top of the nearby Duke Energy Center.
Under federal regulations, aircraft flying over a congested area need a waiver to fly lower than 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle "within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft."
On the morning of Aug. 29, the A-10C Thunderbolt II jets departed Charlotte Douglas International Airport for a routine training flight back to Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. Before leaving the city, they zipped over the stadium and uptown, putting on an unexpected air show for startled residents, office workers and practicing Carolina Panthers players and coaches.
The emails obtained by the Observer show the incident grabbed the attention of commanders at Moody within hours and then escalated up the chain of command, with the Air Force chief of staff and the Air Force secretary eventually asking for updates.
The four A-10s requested to fly over the stadium at 500 feet above the ground, according to the FAA's preliminary "Pilot Deviation Report" filed soon after the incident. Air Traffic Control approved this request, but the pilots didn't have a waiver "for low-level high-speed flight over populated areas," the report says.
The pilots committed "careless or reckless aircraft operation," "unauthorized low level flying" and failed to comply with a requirement not to exceed 250 knots (288 miles per hour) when flying under 10,000 feet above sea level, according to the preliminary findings.
Preliminary reports are filed immediately after an event, triggering an investigation, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said. "The final report is under review," she said. "We turn over the results of investigations of military events to the (U.S. Air Force) for action, if any is warranted."
The day after the flight, Moody Air Force Base said the pilots were grounded pending completion of an investigation. Moody did not provide comment.
The A-10 "Warthogs," twin-engined jets that provide close-air support in combat, departed Charlotte around 11:40 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, and arrived a little more than an hour later at Moody, according to FAA records. The jets are part of the 74th Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 23rd Fighter Group, which is in turn part of the Air Force's 23rd Wing.
By 4:45 p.m. on Monday, the commander of the 23rd Fighter Group was making inquiries about the flight. He sent an email to the commander of the 74th Fighter Squadron with a link to a Charlotte Observer story that included a photo of an A-10 skirting the top of Bank of America Stadium.
"What altitude do you think they were at?" asked the fighter group commander, whose name was redacted.
In a follow-up exchange, the 74th Fighter Squadron commander, whose name was also redacted, said the stadium is 180 feet tall, "but I think the perspective of that pic is deceiving."
Later that evening, the 74th Fighter Squadron commander sent an email with more details on the flight. Although given permission to go as low as 500 feet above ground level the "flight lead kept the formation above 1,000 (Above Ground Level)" in accordance with Air Force requirements, the commander said.
"No members of the formation had any associates, friends, or family in or around the stadium during departure," he added.
In a follow-up email, the fighter group commander said he wanted to know how close the A-10s were to the 786-foot building east of the stadium, referring to the Duke Energy Center.
Later that evening, Col. Thomas Kunkel, the commander of the 23rd Wing and the fighter group commander's boss, was part of another email chain. He told Maj. Gen. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, that the fighter group was looking into the matter. "All 4 pilots are grounded until further notice," he added.
The next morning at 6:58 a.m. Kunkel forwarded an email to the fighter group commander that showed Zobrist updating a higher-up at Air Combat Command in Langley, Va.
"(For Your Situational Awareness) this consumed a lot of my time yesterday evening," Kunkel wrote.
How low were they flying?
Emails from the next day, Aug. 31, show the matter rising all the way to the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein.
Gen. William MacLure, deputy director of current operations at Air Force headquarters, sent an email to multiple Air Force leaders saying that the chief of staff would "like to know details" about the A-10 incident. The general set to brief Goldfein was "looking for something soonest," MacLure added.
It's difficult to determine how low the planes flew from the report and the emails, but it appears they may have descended to 500 feet above the ground.
In one email, an official with Air Combat Command in Virginia reiterated that the jets were given clearance to go as low as 500 feet above the ground, but stayed at 1,000 feet. But later, he writes that the planes flew about 500 feet above Bank of America Stadium.
According to the preliminary FAA report, the A-10s were observed flying as low as 1,200 feet mean sea level over uptown. Bank of America Stadium is 705 feet above sea level, the fighter group commander says in an email. That would put the flight about 500 feet above the ground.
As for their speed, the jets flew as fast as 330 knots (about 380 miles per hour), according to the report. The aircraft did not carry tapes that recorded flight data, requiring the Air Force to request this information from the FAA, according to the emails.
In an Aug. 31 email, the fighter group commander told Kunkel, the 23rd Wing commander, that he was still pursuing additional information from the FAA, including audio on whether the jets were cleared to go to 500 feet above the ground. "Also looking for any communication from them stating that they would remain at 1000 feet (above ground level), although it appears they did not," he wrote.
On Sept. 7, the emails show that the issue had gone all the way up to the secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James. The Air Force secretary "is looking for updates and/or a timeline/estimation for a closeout," a public affairs officer told Kunkel.
In the most recent email obtained by the Observer, Kunkel on Sept. 11 told the fighter group commander "to make sure we have all the facts," including what Air Traffic Control approved, "what altitudes/airspeed and by whom were flown" and "what was communicated to squadron leadership upon landing."