Vintage aircraft crash kills 20 people

A vintage plane crashed at altitude in the Swiss Alps on Saturday, in eastern Switzerland. All 20 passengers lost their lives in Switzerland's worst air tragedy since 2001.

This content was published on August 6, 2018 - 10:43

At a sombre press conference in the town of Flims on Sunday, a day after the accident, Graubünden cantonal police announced that all passengers on board – 17 passengers, two pilots, and a flight attendant – lost their lives in the crash.

It's the worst accident in Swiss aviation since the crash of a Crossair plane at Bassersdorf, canton Zurich, killed 24 in 2001.

All of the passengers and crew members were Swiss, except for a couple from Austria who were also on board with their son.

The plane went down on the western side of the Piz Segnas mountain on Saturday afternoon (see map), at an altitude of 2,540 metres (8,330 feet). It was travelling between Locarno and Dübendorf when it crashed for unknown reasons.

A large-scale salvage operation, which included the deployment of five helicopters, continued on Sunday morning and the airspace around the accident site remains closed; some of the walking trails in the area popular with hikers were also closed off.

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Unknown causes

The cause of the crash is as yet unknown, and officials said they're not aware of any distress call beforehand. 

Daniel Knecht of the Swiss Transportation Safety Investigation Board said the plane appears to have hit the ground near-vertically and at high speed.

Speaking at the news conference Sunday in Flims, near the crash site, Knecht also said the vintage plane presumably didn't have the crash-resistant cockpit voice and data recorders that more modern aircraft have, which could complicate further investigations.

He said officials have essentially ruled out a collision with another aircraft or hitting an obstacle such as a wire. He also said there was no indication of foul play or that the aircraft lost parts or broke up before the crash.

As for the weather, he did not comment on whether or not the high temperatures, which can affect engine performance, may have played a role, but said that all avenues of investigation would be pursued.

The age of a plane also has no connection with its safety, he said, as long as the aircraft is well maintained.

A Ju-52 in flight. The propeller planes were in production between 1932 and 1952. Keystone

'Auntie Ju'

The crashed plane was a Junker Ju-52 (affectionately known as 'Tante Ju' or 'Auntie Ju' in German), owned and operated by the JU-Air company based in Dübendorf, which specialises in sightseeing flights using old military planes. The craft was constructed in 1939, and before Saturday had flown for 10,187 hours.

JU-Air has been operating sightseeing tours with three Ju-52s since 1983, explained CEO Kurt Waldmeier, who said that Saturday was the worst day in the 36-year history of the company. 

The two pilots (62 and 63 years old) had previously worked with the Swissair, Swiss, and Edelweiss airlines, and had served as military pilots with the Swiss Air Force for over 30 years. Both captains had several hundred hours flight experience on the Ju-52.

The 66-year-old flight attendant also had 40 years of professional experience, according to Waldmeier, who confirmed that the latest check-up of the plane was done in July, when no defects were found.

All flights operated by the company have been suspended until further notice.

Family tragedy

In a separate incident, cantonal police in Nidwalden also said that another aircraft went down near the town of Hergiswil earlier on Saturday morning, shortly before 10 am. 

Upon impact, the plane burst into flames, causing the surrounding forested area to catch fire; authorities had to send out a helicopter to extinguish the blaze before rescue workers could arrive at the scene.

In the evening, police confirmed that a family of four lost their lives in the accident. The charred state of the wreckage meant that victim identification was difficult, a police spokesman had earlier said.

The family – two parents and two young children – were from the region and had set off in the direction of France at 9:30 am.

The crashes come just a week after a light aircraft accident in canton Valais that claimed the lives of four people.

Legendary Aircraft

This trimotor plane was built from 1931 to 1952. Initially conceived for civilian use, it served as passenger aircraft for Lufthansa and Swissair.

During the Second World War, it was widely used by Germany's aerial warfare branch Luftwaffe for various kinds of missions including bombing runs, as well as the transport of goods and parachutists.

The end of the war did not spell retirement. The aircraft was used for military operations by France during the Indochina War and by Portugal for the transport of parachutists during the colonial wars in Africa.

The Swiss Air Force, for its part, purchased three aircrafts in 1939 and kept them in use until 1982.  

Advertising and cinema

Ju-Air, an association founded by friends of the Swiss Air Force, took two of the Swiss army's aircraft for civilian use. As its tourist flights were a great success, the association bought two more planes abroad.

Thhe association generates revenue to maintain this relict of the past through its tourism flights and by renting them out to the cinema industry and companies interested in high-level advertising, including Swiss watchmaker IWC.

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