Pressure mounts on Swiss air traffic controllers over air crash

Prosecutors want to find out if someone is responsible for the mid-air collision Keystone

Pressure is mounting on Swiss air traffic controllers amid revelations that they told a Russian pilot to dive just 44 seconds prior to a fatal mid-air collision.

This content was published on July 5, 2002

As Swiss and German prosecutors launched separate investigations into the causes of Monday's mid-air collision between two aircraft, rescue crews continued to search for bodies of the 71 victims.

The causes of the crash between a Russian Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev carrying over 50 children and a DHL Boeing 757 cargo plane remain unknown.

However, German air accident investigators said that Swiss controllers - in charge of monitoring airspace over Lake Constance at the time of impact - gave the Russian pilot only 44 seconds to avoid a collision.

According to German investigators, the Swiss should have given the pilot a minimum of 90 seconds'warning.

The statement contrasts with earlier estimates from Swiss authorities that they gave the Russian pilot 50 seconds' warning.

News reports also stated that the Swiss controllers were working at a reduced capacity at the time of the crash because of a software update on a collision warning system 35 minutes before the two aircraft struck.

Prosecutors launch probes

The Bülach prosecutor's office in canton Zurich announced on Thursday a probe for manslaughter and negligent disruption of public transport. The investigation will try to find out if Skyguide air traffic controllers acted correctly in the moments leading up to the crash.

"The probe will carefully investigate the exact chain of events during the time Skyguide was tracking these aircraft from Zurich airport," said Bülach district attorney Christoph Naef. The air traffic control company is responsible for flights over the area of southern Germany where the accident occurred.

The Swiss probe will help the prosecutors decide if the controllers committed errors for which they can be held criminally liable. Proceedings were launched after the federal authorities gave their all clear, since Skyguide is a state-owned company.

The Germans have not asked for Swiss legal cooperation so far, but have launched their own separate investigation. According to the authorities, it is routine probe to find out if any human error led to the tragedy.

The German prosecutor is however waiting on the report from the German federal air accident investigation office (BFU) before taking proceedings further.

Russian allegations

A Skyguide spokesman said however that there is no 90-second rule for warning aircraft of imminent collision, only an international rule of thumb that says a distance of five or seven miles (eight to 11 kilometres) should be maintained between aircraft. Because of speed differences, he added it would be difficult to implement such a time-based rule.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti renewed its attacks against the Swiss controllers on Thursday, accusing of committing a series of errors that led to the catastrophe.

According to an unnamed Russian investigator cited by the agency, the pilot of the Tupolev warned the Skyguide controllers of the risk of a collision a minute and a half before the accident. The BFU has however countered this claim, saying the recordings received from Skyguide show no message from the Russian pilot.

The Swiss air control agency refused to comment the Russian allegations.

The BFU said it would take longer to gather further data about the accident despite the recovery of all the black box recorders. The equipment and the recordings were seriously damaged and will need repairs before surrendering their secrets.

No radar problem

Skyguide has also answered criticism that its radar system was below European standards, as stated in an official report issued by the Swiss Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau last week. The agency said there was no relation between the crash in southern Germany and problems with its radar system.

Jean Overney, the head of Bureau, added on Thursday that the radar images of the accident were clear and complete, and totally precise.

Skyguide has also confirmed it has a liability insurance policy worth SFr500 million ($334 million), guaranteed by a group of insurers. A new contract was signed on Monday.

Skyguide's legal counsel, Othmar Lehmann, said that so far, no compensation claims could be addressed to the agency, as the question of responsibility has not been resolved.

The crash left 71 people dead, including 45 children on their way to Barcelona. Over 130 parents and relatives arrived in Germany on Thursday to see the crash site and to give investigators records that will help identify the victims. So far 69 bodies have been found.

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