3 July 2002
Communications failure blamed for mid-air crash
By Toby Helm in Überlingen
A catastrophic ground-to-air communications failure was being blamed last night for the collision between a Russian charter Tupolev 154 airliner carrying 69 people, including 52 teenagers and other children, and a Boeing 757 operated by the parcel company DHL.
The children were on their way to a holiday in Spain. Five more were supposed to be on board, but they could not get visas and were not allowed to fly.
The Tupolev was chartered after the children missed an earlier connecting flight. As tearful parents gathered to obtain travel documents to leave for Germany, the mother of 11-year-old Bulat Biglov, one of the victims, said on Russian NTV television: "If only they had flown on time, nothing would have happened."
All 71 people on board the two aircraft, including the British pilot of the Boeing, were killed when the jets crashed at 35,000ft over the holiday town of Überlingen.
Fireballs falling from the sky set fire to buildings in villages over an area of 20 square miles. The disaster left residents in a state of shock and disbelief while rival safety authorities tried to blame each other.
The aircraft collided at 11.35pm (10.35 BST) on Monday when the Tupolev heading from Moscow to Barcelona failed to respond to a first warning to lose height issued by a Swiss air traffic controller 50 seconds earlier.
The pilot did respond to a second warning 25 seconds later, but by then the Boeing's automatic warning device had caused it to lose height. This took it into the path of the Russian plane. German police said they had found 26 bodies in and around the picturesque villages a few miles north of Überlingen.
Investigators who combed the rural landscape close to the shores of Lake Constance found wreckage in 57 places. Police guarded fields of ripening corn and maize over a wide area to keep sightseers from interfering with the search.
Twenty-two boats patrolled the lake looking for wreckage, although it was thought unlikely that any parts had landed in the water. Boats which are normally busy with tourists were either taking part in the search or remained tied up.
Among local people, the shock was tempered by relief that nobody on the ground had been killed. A 26-year-old woman in Überlingen said: "I heard on the radio that if the planes had flown 200 metres more before colliding, it all would have come down on our town. "So in some way we have to think how lucky we are."
Johannes Schwarzer was standing on his balcony when he saw wreckage crashing to earth in the distance. "I thought something had blown up in the industrial area and thought this simply cannot be a missile exploding in our midst."
On Überlingen's medieval town hall a huge German flag hung limply, decorated with two black ribbons. Today experts will begin examining the flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders from the Tupolev. The devices were recovered shortly after the crash.
As the recriminations began, Swiss air traffic control blamed the Russian pilot of the Tupolev. The airliner's owners, Bashkirian Airlines, said the controllers were responsible. The Swiss insisted that the Russian pilot was given enough time to change course.
Anton Maag, the chief of the Zurich control tower, said the first order to descend 50 seconds before the crash was "a time window that was not irresponsible but fairly tight".
But Georg Fongern, a spokesman for Germany's commercial pilot union, told ZDF television: "Normally we count on five to 10 minutes for two planes heading for a planned crossing of their flight paths to be separated. We must ask why the two planes were not brought apart earlier."
Sergei Rybanov, an official of Bashkirian Airlines, said in Moscow that all the children had flown to the capital on Saturday from their home in the eastern city of Ufa. But their intended onward flight had already left.
Kurt Bodewig, the German traffic minister, said that the German aviation authority would be responsible for finding out the cause of the crash.