4 July 2002
Crash alarm was off and air controller on break
By Toby Helm in Überlingen
The finger of blame for Monday night's mid-air plane crash over Germany, which killed 71 people, was pointing at Swiss air traffic controllers yesterday after a belated admission that their collision warning system had been switched off.
It also emerged that one of the two controllers was taking a break at the time of the collision.
This was a clear breach of regulations, said Anton Maag, chief of the Zurich control tower. When the collision warning system was out of operation, two controllers were meant to be present.
However, one of his aides, Philipp Seiler, later said the rule did not apply at night and that neither controller had broken company rules. The controller left alone to deal with the situation was being treated for shock yesterday and was said to be unable to give his version of events. He was described as an experienced member of staff.
A spokesman for Skyguide, the Swiss company responsible for air traffic control, said earlier that the collision warning system had been taken out of action because of checks on its software. "It was not working at the time," said Roger Gaberelle.
The warning equipment sounds an alarm if there is danger of a collision but is periodically closed down for maintenance during less busy periods.
Skyguide rushed out statements early on Tuesday defending its performance and questioning why the pilot of the Russian plane involved had failed to respond to orders to descend. Yesterday it refused to comment on whether a functioning system might have helped prevent the crash.
The admission has fuelled a bitter dispute between authorities in Moscow and Zurich. Skyguide also confirmed that the single air traffic controller on duty had given the Russian pilot just 50 seconds' warning. The Swiss had earlier said a warning of around two minutes had been given.
Mr Gaberelle said 50 seconds was cutting it close, but insisted it was well within international air traffic control standards. "Fifty seconds are not ideal but not impossible," he said.
Georg Fongern, spokesman for the German pilots' union, said crews normally expected a warning of five to 10 minutes. "We must ask why the two planes were not brought apart earlier. That would have been the usual thing to do."
Russia's official news agency RIA Novosti reported that Bashkirian Airlines, whose Tupolev was travelling to Barcelona from Moscow with 69 people on board - including 45 children and teenagers - would sue the Swiss air traffic controllers.
The Russian airline has defended its pilots, rejecting suggestions from the Swiss that they were at fault. Both pilots were fluent in English with thousands of hours' flying experience, it said.
Everyone on board the two planes died when the Tupolev struck a Boeing cargo plane operated by DHL delivery service at 36,000ft en route to Brussels.
Yesterday Russian investigators joined German teams at the scene where wreckage fell over a 20 sq mile area north of Lake Constance, in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. By yesterday morning 36 bodies had been found.
The first warning to the Russian pilot came 50 seconds before the crash. This was followed by a second warning 25 seconds later, and the pilot sent the plane into a descent. By that time, however, the cargo aircraft had received an automatic alert from its anti-collision system that sent it into a dive.