Court hears new testimony in plane crash trial

Controllers are no longer allowed to work alone while monitoring airspace Keystone Archive

Defence attorneys have rejected allegations that a midair crash in 2002 that killed 71 people could have been prevented if a second controller had been on duty.

This content was published on May 25, 2007 - 21:46

The lawyers made their case on Friday at a district court near Zurich where eight employees of the Swiss air traffic control agency Skyguide are on trial.

The collision took place in Swiss-controlled airspace over Germany's Lake Constance area on July 1, 2002. A Russian Tupolev aircraft operated by Bashkirian Airlines crashed into a DHL cargo jet, killing everyone on board both planes, including 49 children and teenagers.

Two years later, the Dane who was the sole controller on duty in Zurich when the crash occurred was stabbed to death outside his family home by a Russian man who lost his wife and two children in the collision. The Russian was found guilty of intentional killing a year later.

The trial of three Skyguide managers, two maintenance staff and three other employees began last week. They have been charged with negligent manslaughter as well as negligent disruption of public transport. They all deny the charges.

The prosecution, which has called for suspended sentences of between six and 15 months, has accused Skyguide's management for authorising a procedure – since banned - that allowed one of the two controllers on duty to take a break.

This left the Danish man alone at the time of the incident. The prosecutors say this gave him too much responsibility and compromised safety.

Staff were also alleged to not be properly aware that maintenance work was taking place, which meant the backup radar system was not working properly and the emergency telephone system was malfunctioning.

Second controller

But lawyers representing the head of operations for Zurich's control tower and the man responsible for maintenance said on Friday that the crash could not have been avoided even if the second controller had been at his workstation.

The attorneys agreed with testimony given earlier in the trial by some of the other defendants, who blamed the single air traffic controller for not following proper procedures.

The Dane gave the two aircraft only 43 seconds' warning that they were getting too close to each other and mistakenly told the Russian plane to descend which sent it straight into the cargo jet.

The operative head on the night of the incident could not have foreseen the misjudged actions the controller would take, the lawyers said. And the maintenance staff member was subordinate to the controllers, and therefore had "no say" in the control tower.

The defence said it was incomprehensible why the single controller decided to monitor the airspace from two workstations when the job could have been done from one.

Faulty telephone

Only one of the accused defended the Dane when he gave testimony earlier in the trial, praising his work and saying that problems with the telephone had prevented him from reacting in time to the crash.

A report issued by Germany's Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau in 2004 partially blamed Swiss air traffic control for the accident, but said the crash was caused primarily by human error.

It added that the crew of the Bashkirian Airlines jet obeyed the controller's instruction to descend but failed to listen to their on-board collision warning system, which advised them to climb.

The trial is expected to conclude next week.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

On July 1, 2002 a Russian passenger plane collided with a cargo jet over Swiss-controlled airspace in southern Germany, killing 71 people.

Skyguide admitted partial responsibility. A relative of three victims took revenge on the controller on duty at the time of the accident by stabbing him to death at his home in Zurich in early 2004.

A Zurich court found Russian architect Vitaly Kaloyev guilty of the intentional killing of the controller and sentenced him to eight years in prison. The final verdict is still pending.

In their 2004 report, German investigators said the accident was due largely to negligence on the part of Skyguide, and partially the fault of the two Russian pilots.

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Skyguide

Skyguide is a non-profit-making limited company that is 99% owned by the Swiss government.

It is responsible for air traffic control in Switzerland and parts of neighbouring countries.

Skyguide is based in Geneva, but a new Air Navigation Service Centre in Zurich is expected to be fully operational next year.

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