Pilot in low Kinnick flyover blamed other air traffic

A flight of T-38 Talons flies over Kinnick Stadium before Iowa's  Big Ten Conference college football game against Ohio
A flight of T-38 Talons flies over Kinnick Stadium before Iowa's Big Ten Conference college football game against Ohio State Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

An Air Force pilot who led a dangerously low flyover before an Iowa football game told investigators he descended to avoid other air traffic and then lost track of his altitude because he was busy with other tasks, according to a report documenting missteps in the flight's planning and execution.

Maj. Christopher Kopacek was a distinguished fighter pilot but also had a history of disciplinary problems and was once suspended as a flight trainer after a superior wrote him up for giving "substandard instruction," according to Air Force records obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act. Records show the Ankeny, Iowa, native was allowed to plan and lead the flyover before Iowa played Ohio State on Nov. 20 as his final flight in the service his "fini flight" in Air Force lingo before retirement.

An Air Force investigation found that Kopacek failed to give the other three pilots in his formation a target altitude before the flyover, as is common practice. The other pilots told investigators they had no idea they were so low until they passed over Kinnick Stadium, which was filled with 70,000 fans, and were later upset with Kopacek, who apologized for what he called a mistake.

In demoting Kopacek days later, Lt. Col. William W. Browne III found that Kopacek had committed gross errors in judgment that "not only placed himself and the members of his flight at great risk, but also the thousands of spectators within the stadium."

The Air Force said last month the four Talon T-38 jets were at an altitude 16 feet above the stadium's press box and cleared the scoreboard by 58 feet during the flyover, which amazed fans and was meant to honor military veterans. Their altitude of 176 feet above ground level was far below the 1,000-foot minimum elevation required for flights above a populated area. The jets were also above the speed limit.

VIDEO of flyover:

Kopacek, who has not granted interview requests, reached a legal settlement with the Air Force in which he was fined and voluntarily resigned rather than face a court martial. Five other pilots, three who flew in Kopacek's formation and two ground controllers, were disciplined but remain eligible to fly.

According to the Air Force documents, Kopacek learned as he was approaching the stadium that two small planes had taken off without clearance from Iowa City's airport and an air traffic controller warned one could be in his flight path and was not in contact with the control tower. Kopacek said he started a slow descent to avoid the potential traffic, and then became "task saturated" and lost track of his altitude while trying to avoid the plane and correct his timing. The plane passed about one-quarter mile away from and 1,700 feet above Kopacek's jet.

"I became fixated on looking out for the traffic and dropped my altitude out of my crosscheck," Kopacek said in a written statement given to investigators.

But the investigation found that Kopacek continued to descend after the traffic was no longer a factor. The investigator, Lt. Col. Andrew Hamann, said Kopacek was comfortable completing the flyover at the low altitude since they had practiced it three times the day before below the 1,000-foot requirement, although the actual flyover was much lower than practice.

As for Kopacek's failure to set a target altitude for the flight so he and the other pilots could activate altitude warning systems, Hamann concluded: "It was either poor mission planning on the part of Maj. Kopacek that these items were not briefed or they were intentionally left out."

One of the pilots, Maj. Eric Yape, said the first indication of their low altitude came as the jets were passing over Kinnick and "it looked a lot closer than 1,000 above ground level in my peripheral vision based off of seeing the scoreboard." Yape and others expressed displeasure with Kopacek afterwards.

"I told them I had made a mistake and never intended to be off of my altitude. I debriefed some of the contributing factors and told them it was my fault for getting the formation lower than planned," Kopacek said in his statement.

As University of Iowa and fans lavished what one Air Force record called unprecedented praise on the pilots for the flyover, the response from Kopacek's superiors was swift.

One who saw the event on live television sent a text message to Kopacek saying it looked too low. Another grounded Kopacek and another pilot, who were forced to drive back to Vance Air Force base in Oklahoma after staying the night in Kansas.

While video of the flyover was spreading on the Internet, Kopacek asked one of the pilots whether he knew how to remove YouTube links and the investigation found that some clips were removed. Kopacek told investigators his father played a role in that effort, but he did not.

Browne, Kopacek's superior, wrote in an email to another official that he was "fuming mad" about what Kopacek had done. And he noted Kopacek already had been disciplined several times.

Kopacek had experience leading flyovers and had a largely successful 10-year career around the globe. But in 2009, he was counseled for "repeated demonstrations of lack of professionalism" and poor decision making that included showing up late, missing a flight briefing and failing to notify a superior about an absence.

Lt. Col. David Clinton wrote he knew of "several other instances" where Kopacek's responsibility has been questioned and warned Kopacek to avoid any further slip-ups.

In 2007, a superior counseled Kopacek for poor leadership after he failed to attend mandatory events and his inattentiveness during one flight led to landing on the wrong runway. The same year, he was suspended as an instructor and given a surprise evaluation to test his flight skills after he was written up for providing "substandard instruction" during a training course.

Air Force spokeswoman Katie Roling had no immediate comment.To avoid future problems, the investigation recommended an experienced instructor pilot should fly in the backseat of one aircraft during flyovers, target altitudes must be set beforehand and video recording and altitude warning systems should be used by aircraft that have them.

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