Restricted airspace, no tower can cause problems at tampa’s peter o. knight airport grade 6 electricity experiments

TAMPA — Before Louis Caporicci and Kevin Carreno climbed into the cockpit of a Cessna 340 last month, before confusion at Peter O. Knight Airport led their plane and another to take off at the same time, before their plane veered into the ground and erupted in a fireball, killing the two friends, there was a warning.

The message, from a veteran pilot with thousands of hours of flying time, came after he was involved in a near midair collision over Peter O. Knight in January 2014. The plane that nearly hit him never signaled it was trying to land, he wrote in a federal safety report.

The pilot also warned that tight restrictions on where planes can fly near Peter O. Knight make airspace around the Davis Islands airport "cramped," increasing the danger when communication breaks down. He called the situation "treacherous."

Seven miles to the northwest is Tampa International Airport. MacDill Air Force Base sits 6 miles to the southwest. Both are surrounded by airspace that pilots can enter only if they’re granted permission by those airports’ control towers. A shipping channel adjacent to the airport further complicates operations.

But in the moments before the deadly crash on March 18, there was a communications failure between the two planes taking off at Peter O. Knight, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation has found. MacDill’s controlled airspace factored in, too, the NTSB report says.

"Airspace restrictions are a challenge at Peter O. Knight," said John Cox, a former US Airways pilot and former safety official at the Air Line Pilots Association who now lives in St. Petersburg. "It can and has been for years used safely, but it is challenging."

Marty Lauth, a retired Federal Aviation Administration controller who worked at airports in Orlando and Miami, said he has never seen an urban general aviation airport in Florida where pilots must maneuver around such expansive airspace restrictions without a tower.

An airport can apply to the Federal Contract Tower program and the FAA will conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see if a tower is needed. The federal government can help fund the cost. Or, airports can choose to construct a tower and pay for staffing themselves.

Since 2009, pilots on five occasions have reported narrowly avoiding catastrophes at Peter O. Knight, including three near midair collisions between planes during takeoffs or landings. In each case, there was a failure to properly communicate. In most cases, Peter O. Knight’s unique surroundings factored in, as well.

In February 2015, for example, a plane flew less than 100 feet over an unsuspecting tugboat on the channel adjacent to Peter O. Knight. The encounter "scared the (expletive) out of the pilot in the vessel’s wheelhouse," according to a safety report filed with NASA.

Incidents occur because of the airport’s proximity to MacDill. A 2014 safety handbook from the airbase on avoiding midair collisions said Peter O. Knight "presents the greatest potential for conflict" with MacDill planes and it urged civilian pilots to "exercise extreme vigilance and caution."

MacDill’s runway lines up almost perfectly with one at Peter O. Knight, and the two airports "are often mistaken or confused" with each other, the handbook said. In 2012, a civilian pilot headed to Peter O. Knight from Miami accidentally landed without clearance at the airbase, causing security concerns.

Pilots in the Cessna 172 told NTSB investigators that they announced their takeoff plans through a ground frequency, but they never heard Caporicci and Carreno. When the Cessna 172 took off, Caporicci and Carreno left the ground at almost the same time, then took a hard left turn, then the plane inverted and crashed nose-first into the ground.