The call had gone out over air traffic control airwaves shortly after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, July 7: “Plane in distress.”
Eyewitness accounts of the most awful collision above began flooding the local 911 systems shortly thereafter: “Two planes collided in the sky over Moncks Corner!”
Emergency first responders were dispatched to a bend in the Cooper River near Lewisfield Plantation off Old Highway 52 in Moncks Corner.
They had no idea what they would find on the ground, in the river, anywhere.
“Surreal” became the most often used descriptive adjective of the day.
“A hot mess,” one emergency worker on the scene described what he saw.
As the dust settled and the smoke cleared, grisly facts began to emerge: a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon — a 10-ton, 50-foot long fighter jet capable of reaching speeds in excess of 300 mph — had collided in midair with a Cessna 150M single engine, two-seater airplane.
Both planes were down.
The pilot and passenger of the Cessna were missing.
The Cessna was missing.
At first, authorities weren’t sure how many passengers were on board the Cessna.
Emergency workers only knew where there was once an airplane and now there wasn’t anymore.
The USAF had dispatched investigators to quarantine the crash site. The NTSB and the FAA had investigators on the way.
Temperatures eclipsed the century mark at 101 degrees during high noon on the Cooper River.
A debris field stretched for more than 10 miles downstream to the crash site of the F-16, in harsh, unforgiving conditions.
Eyewitnesses reported hearing loud shotgun-like explosions.
One charter fisherman on the river said he was nearly hit by three jettisoned fuel tanks as USAF Maj. Aaron Johnson struggled to keep his jet in the air and away from populated areas.
“He saw us,” charter captain Joe Dennis said. “And he was sure to steer away from us.”
Portions of the F-16 lay burning along the riverbank.
Johnson ejected and walked away from the wreck, but the Cessna was gone.
Rescue workers were faced with a daunting task of searching for, and recovering the bodies of the victims, perhaps submerged underwater, perhaps gone forever.
This was the scenario facing Berkeley County Coroner and Berkeley County Rescue Squad Chief Bill Salisbury as Tuesday morning stretched into Tuesday afternoon and the full horror of what happened in the skies over Moncks Corner began to dawn on everyone standing in the sweltering heat at the command center set up in the Big Lots parking lot off Old Highway 52 in Moncks Corner.
“There is no reason to believe anyone survived this crash,” Salisbury said during his first media briefing on Tuesday afternoon.
The more than 150 people from 20 local and federal agencies amassed at the crash site began treating the accident as a recovery mission to bring the bodies of the victims home to their families.
“We want to resolve this situation as quickly as possible and bring the bodies of the two victims home again to their families,” Salisbury said.
The problem facing him and everyone else in the water and along the banks of the Cooper River was, “How?”
Some gruesome details to consider:
The F-16 Fighting Falcon can weigh up to 24 tons when fully fueled and with weapons attached, had a 32-foot wingspan, and was 50-feet in length. It could reach a top speed of more than 300 mph.
The Cessna weighed just 1,500 pounds fully loaded.
The two aircraft colliding in midair would be something akin to a Mack truck hitting a Moped broadside.
The victims — father and son Michael and Joe Johnson — were missing and in water.
Around 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 7, Tom Fernandez of Skyview Aerial Solutions reached out to Salisbury and offered an answer: drone aircrafts.
“It’s interesting because up until this point, we have been traditionally doing a lot of pictures for people, pictures for construction companies, novelty stuff mostly,” said Fernandez, Skyview Aerial Solutions’ CEO. “We recently started testing in doing mapping for GPS drones. We weren’t sure what this software and drone photography could do. Then, when this accident took place, we reached out to Bill Salisbury.”
Fernandez had heard the news reports. He was aware of the daunting search facing rescue workers combing a debris field underwater more than 10 miles in length.
While not exactly sure what kind of help Skyview and their drones might be able to provide, Salisbury accepted.
“When we got there, nobody had any idea what we could do. They thought we would put the drone up in the air and take a single photo. We went out and in five minutes, we took 80 pictures. In 10 minutes, our work was done.”
By the time the Skyview crew arrived at the crash site, the focus of the mission had switched to victim search and recovery.
“We wanted to find these guys,” Fernandez said. “We wanted to do this for the family. We wanted to do this for the emergency workers. We wanted to help.”
The task facing Fernandez and Skyview looked Herculean in scope but, in reality, once his drone had snapped off the 80 photographs of the river, the mapping software took over and the rest was quite easy.
“While there were portions of the plane that were larger in size, the majority of what we saw were smaller than the size of your hand,” Fernandez said.
“Everything forward of the Cessna’s cabin compartment had been rendered to confetti,” Fernandez said. “An Air Force gentleman described the impact scene. The area of the plane from the cabin forward was turned into confetti. All the little pieces floated down, but the heavier parts continued their momentum, carried by inertia and it extended the debris field downstream.”
The F-16 hit the Cessna broadside on the pilot side of the airplane.
For Fernandez and his drone, the job was to find the victims.
“It was humbling in that we were so busy out there in handling our assignment, I felt like I wanted to cry all day. It was a very emotional time out there. Thinking of the victims and knowing they were out here, and in what condition they were in. We wanted to find as much of them as we could.”
Even Fernandez marveled at what the drone and his company’s mapping software was able to accomplish.
“We cut days off the search and recovery time,” he said. “I felt fulfilled and humbled at the same time.
“What was really neat about this, we only had to be 90 feet above the ground. We wanted to get as low as possible to see as much as possible.”
From 90 feet the drone was able to see four-to-five feet beneath the river’s surface, and they saw a lot. “Parts of the plane, while there were portions of the plane that were larger in size, the majority of what we saw were smaller than the size of your hand.
“There wasn’t anything left,” Fernandez said. “They would announce what they’d found and bring it to the surface. After a while I just turned away. I couldn’t watch anymore. I’d seen enough.”
The experience of that Tuesday afternoon has stayed with Fernandez. “I don’t have nightmares, but I see what was out there over and over again. It is always in my thoughts and always on my mind.”
Salisbury approached Fernandez on Wednesday and asked how much their work was going to cost him.
“I told Bill our work wouldn’t cost him a dime,” Fernandez said. “We donated our time because we are members of this community. It’s not going to cost you anything.”
With temperatures reaching 101 degrees on the river, Fernandez was aware of the impact the elements would have on rescue workers.
“We wanted to find these guys. We wanted to do this for the family. We wanted to do this for the emergency workers. We wanted to help.”
A week later, Fernandez still suffers from leftover effects from the harsh conditions on the river.
“Sunburn, gnat and chigger bites all up and down my legs,” he said. “Dehydration.”
This area of the Cooper River offers a unique geographic dynamic. There are deep channels that are surrounded by shallow rice paddies dating back to the Civil War, which, depending on the tide can be as shallow as inches.
The Skyview drones provided rescue workers with an orthomasaic map of the river (see photo), which saved divers and recovery personnel precious time as what could have taken weeks by conventional means, was completed in about 10 minutes of autonomous flight by the small drones.
The information the Skyview drones accumulated is already being used, not only in the recovery efforts, but also by the NTSB and FAA in their investigations of the midair collision.
“The software is called Pix 4 D, and the company that created it is a Swiss firm,” Fernandez said. “They had no idea their software was capable of providing this kind of usable data. We were able to provide an overview, a high resolution overview of the entire area and it helped them locate above and below water, wreckage and further debris.”
Skyview ran seven different missions Wednesday and said their maps showed there was still a large amount of debris left to be recovered.
Still, with the aid of his drones and mapping software, rescue workers were able to bring a sense of closure to the family involved.
“We were able to bring their loved ones homes,” Fernandez said. “That in itself is very humbling.”