A student and instructor doing pattern work at Winter Haven Regional Airport in Florida were killed March 7 when their Piper Cherokee collided with a Piper J–3 Cub on floats while turning to left base for Runway 29. Two occupants of the Cub, owned by Jack Brown's Seaplane Base, also died.
Audio recorded by LiveATC from the common traffic advisory frequency used by pilots operating at Winter Haven (and nearby Plant City), along with recorded ADS-B tracking data from FlightAware, provided the first insight on the midair collision that took place just after 2 p.m. Eastern time, when a short series of alarm sounds was recorded from 121.5 MHz seconds after the Cherokee announced its left base turn during a “short approach.” The audio recordings include no transmissions from any Piper Cub during the 30 minutes leading up to the collision over Lake Hartridge, adjacent to the airport's southeast side.
“My heart goes out to the families and friends of those who were killed in today’s crash. The NTSB and FAA will be investigating the cause and circumstances of the collision. Please keep the families in your prayers during this difficult and stressful time,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in the statement.
Polk State College released a statement March 7, mourning Mace and Baker.
“Our Polk State College family is devastated by this tragedy,” Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti said. “We extend our deepest condolences to their families, friends, and colleagues.”
Jack Brown's Seaplane Base released a statement March 8 on Facebook:
"It is with heavy hearts that we mourn the loss of instructor and dear friend, Lou DeFazio, and fellow seaplane enthusiast and long time customer of the Base, Randall Crawford, in yesterday's accident," the company wrote. "Our prayers and deepest sympathies are with the families, friends, and entire Polk State community as we walk through this dark time together."
AOPA Foundation High School Aero Club Liaison Jamie Beckett, who lives in Winter Haven and has close connections to many of those involved, said mourning extended far beyond the families of the pilots who were killed.
“The sense of sorrow in Polk County is profound this morning. I've been receiving texts, Facebook messages, and emails from people well into the night and again this morning,” Beckett wrote in an email March 8. His youngest daughter, Madison, attended high school with Baker; he considers the staff at Jack Brown’s to be friends and colleagues, as well as conscientious aviators.
“As you can imagine there is no joy in this town today. Nor in Lakeland where the Cherokee flight originated. Good people were lost for no good reason. How these two aircraft could have met in flight is a mystery to me. The Cherokee was on downwind to Runway 29. They should have been at 1,000 [feet agl]. The seaplanes cruise at no more than 500 [feet agl]. There should have been no conflict, although there clearly was.”
The Cherokee was operated by Sunrise Aviation in Ormond Beach, Florida, which provides flight training to aerospace program students at Polk State College, part of the nexus of aviation education that has long been fostered by the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo held each spring at Lakeland Linder International Airport, from which the Cherokee departed at 1:27 p.m., according to FlightAware data. The student and instructor made the short flight to Winter Haven in a few minutes, and weather was good: The automated weather station at Winter Haven reported wind at 10 knots blowing nearly straight down Runway 29, with a few clouds at 4,100 feet, around the time of the accident.
A male voice, presumably Mace, announced the Cherokee’s arrival on the Winter Haven CTAF 8 miles out, at 1:34 p.m. Other aircraft were operating in the pattern at Winter Haven as the Cherokee approached, including a Piper Tomahawk and a Van’s RV, along with a Grumman aircraft, the pilot of which did not specify type. A Flight Design aircraft announced a runway crossing on the busy frequency just before Mace reported the pair’s first left downwind, followed moments later by announcing a “short approach,” quickly followed by a left base callout, and final. A few minutes after a full stop and taxi back to Runway 29, the Cherokee announced a departure for left traffic at 1:47 p.m. Routine pattern calls followed with another “short approach” announced by Mace, followed by a full stop landing.
A Cessna Skyhawk reported inbound on a practice approach with intent to fly an early miss as the Cherokee taxied back for takeoff. A Lake Amphibian had landed ahead of the Cherokee, which announced it was taxiing back to Runway 29 at 1:51 p.m.
“Two-One Delta, is it just you guys at Winter Haven?” the inbound Cessna on the instrument approach inquired as the Cherokee taxied, having just reported a 5-mile missed approach.
“Affirmative, Two-One Delta,” a female voice responded, the only transmission apparently made by Baker that was recorded in the CTAF audio. Another Cessna soon thereafter announced a 45-degree pattern entry to the left downwind for Runway 29 as the Skyhawk on the missed approach overflew the airport at 1,500 feet, departing east.
No calls were made by the Piper Cub. Most if not all of the J–3 Cubs operated by Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base are not equipped with electrical systems or radios, according to AOPA staff who trained there in recent years. ATC audio recorded after the accident includes transmissions from a Jack Brown’s Cub, possibly using a portable radio. That Cub pilot offered to land and approach the accident aircraft floating in the lake, but was waved off by the police helicopter.
Jack Brown’s is a local institution that has drawn pilots from around the country for decades, offering intensive seaplane training in Florida’s often-ideal weather. AOPA writers have made many visits over the years, most recently to fly the Icon A5.
There was no radar or ADS-B data immediately available to ascertain where the Cub had flown, or how it came to be in the same spot as the Cherokee that was likely in a descending turn or established on left base when the collision took place.
The final audio calls from the Cherokee included routine announcements of takeoff, crosswind, and left downwind for Runway 29, behind the newly arriving Cessna. At 1:56 p.m., Mace announced another “short approach Runway 29,” followed about 20 seconds later by a left base turn, final, and a go-around at 1:58 p.m. Aside from an inaudible transmission, there were no traffic calls from other aircraft as the Cherokee circuited the pattern for the third time, announcing another “short approach” 11 seconds after 2 p.m., based on audio timestamps, and, 36 seconds later, “turning left base for Runway 29.”
Nine seconds later, the audio recorded from 121.5 MHz captured at least one, possibly two near-simultaneous tone broadcasts from emergency locator transmitters, 56 seconds past the hour.
Routine operations continued at the airport for the next 15 minutes, as boats raced to the aircraft in the water, and a police helicopter approached the airport at about 2:15 p.m.
“Winter Haven area traffic, Sheriff’s Department Air 2, currently 5 miles south of the field, inbound to the area of Winter Haven Airport. Does anyone have reports of aircraft down in the area?”
A pilot on final approach to Runway 29 reported a yellow seaplane in the water, with a boat next to it and another boat approaching. News helicopters would soon arrive and begin to orbit the lake, capturing images of the Cub, inverted and largely submerged, its distinctive gray floats broken loose. The Cherokee, which police found submerged 21 feet below the surface, was not visible from the air.
“We will learn something of value from this in the days and weeks to come, and we will put that knowledge to work educating others to be safer, more competent pilots,” Beckett wrote. “But today, there are just tears and a profound sense of loss.”