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Controller confused crash pilots

Questions have again been raised about Skyguide's role in last month's Lake Contance air disaster Keystone

The Swiss air traffic controller in charge of two jets that collided over southern Germany last month appears to have mistaken the planes moments before impact.

A transcript of radio communications between the Zurich-based air traffic controller and an ill-fated Russian Tupolev has shown that the pilot was given the wrong information. Seventy-one people – including 52 children – died in the tragedy.

The transcript reveals that the controller from Switzerland’s Skyguide service wrongly informed the Russian pilot that another aircraft – a Boeing 757 belonging to the DHL courier company – was approaching from the right-hand side. In fact, the Boeing was on a collision course from the left.

“There is another aircraft for you at two o’clock, now at 360 (a reference to 36,000 feet),” said the Skyguide controller, about 20 seconds before impact.

“Two o’clock” is a standard aviation reference for the area roughly 60 degrees to the right-hand side of the aircraft’s nose.

Instruction went to the wrong pilot

But two Russian newspapers – who published details of the transcript on Tuesday – have pointed out that the instruction was given to the wrong aircraft.

Rather than coming from the right-hand side, the approaching DHL aircraft was actually approaching the Tupolev from the left – at what would have been around “ten o’clock” for the Russian pilot.

The “two o’clock” instruction would have been applicable to the Boeing pilot.

Upon hearing the warning, the Russian pilot is believed to have wasted valuable seconds searching the sky to his right-hand side. He is then heard to exclaim: “Damn! Where is he?”.

German confirmation

Frank Göldner, a spokesman for the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation, confirmed on Tuesday that the pilots of the two aircraft were confused by the air traffic controller’s instructions.

“It is correct that the pilots did not know who he meant. However, at this stage we cannot say what consequences this had,” Göldner told swissinfo.

According to the Russian newspapers “Isvestia” and “Komsomolskaja Pravda”, the Tupolev pilot only spotted the Boeing 3.8 seconds before impact. With less than two seconds left, the newspaper’s transcript records the sound of swearing in the cockpit.

Göldner confirmed that the Russian pilot did see the Boeing, although the precise moment has not yet been determined.

The two aircraft crashed into each other shortly before midnight on July 1, spreading flaming wreckage over a broad area around Lake Constance, on the Swiss-German border.

Most of the victims were Russian school children en route to a UNESCO conference in Barcelona.

Interim report due in September

Several investigations are currently probing the causes of the disaster. Swiss authorities have revealed that the Skyguide controller was working alone (contrary to standard industry practice) and battling with technical and telecommunications difficulties in the minutes before the crash.

Swiss authorities initially cast doubts over the language ability of the Russian crew – a claim that has been fiercely contested by the Russians.

The German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation is due to release a preliminary report on the causes of the crash in early September, according to Göldner.

Jacob Greber with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR