Air crash: pilot or air traffic control?

The tragic accident over Ueberlingen on Tuesday between the Tu-154 and the DHL 757 raises the question as to who or what was to blame. Initial reports claimed that the Russian pilot did not understand English and therefore was slow to react but on closer analysis it appears that there were grave problems with the air traffic control systems.

As usual, many international press sources pointed the finger at the Russian aircraft and pilot. There were reports that the pilot of the Bashkirian Airlines flight from Moscow to Barcelona did not understand enough English to understand the instruction to dive, after a cargo flight appeared directly in his path at 35,000 feet over southern Germany. Closer examination of Russian aircraft and their safety records, when compared with the number of flights in the air, would indicate that they are among the least likely to have an accident.

There were reports that the Russian flight crew were altering their radio frequency when the instruction to dive was issued, meaning that only at the last moment, was the instruction heard. Paul Duffy, of Air Transport World, claims that “In Europe, there are a lot of radio frequencies and you have to change twelve or thirteen times travelling from Russia to Spain”. If the Russian aircraft was not fitted with a TCAS collision-avoidance system, it is possible that the order to dive would have been lost in the gaps between the frequencies.

However, another avenue needs to be explored, that of the European Union air traffic control systems. Six months ago, EU air traffic control systems decided to halve the minimum height between aircraft, under the Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM). This programme stipulated that aircraft flying over 29,000 feet are limited to a maximum distance of one thousand feet from the nearest aircraft, instead of the two thousand feet previously required.

The aim is to cram as many aircraft as possible into the airspace, increasing profitability for airlines and airports alike and substantially reducing safety standards.

Other questions remain open. Why was the Russian pilot the only one to be ordered to change course by the Swiss air traffic controllers? Why did these allow the situation to arrive at the point at which they had to take the extremely drastic measure to tell the pilot to dive?

Flight International Magazine editor Max Kingsley-Jones told the BBC in an interview that “if this was the instruction, then it would appear that things had already got out of control”.

The options remain open as investigations continue. Whoever or whatever is to blame, 52 Russian children are among the 71 people who died in this horrific incident.


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