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Tragic accident Jet ordered to fly too low, investigators say

A view towards the Susten Pass, as seen through a military helicopter involved in the search for the pilot and plane


The F/A-18 military jet which crashed last week in the Swiss Alps was given a too low altitude reading by air traffic control after losing radar contact, military justice officials said on Tuesday. The Swiss air traffic agency, Skyguide, says it will assume its responsibility in the affair. The investigation continues.

The jet crashed on August 29 after going missing during a military training exercise.

The wreckage was found in the mountains near the Susten Pass in central Switzerland on August 30 and the 27-year-old Swiss Air Force pilot’s body was found a day after.

The crash site is located in a deep basin, with steep glacier slopes.

Plane accident Jet wreckage location

Location map of the Swiss F/A-18 military jet crash, and images of the area under bad weather conditions on the first day of search. Plus archive ...

Military investigators said at a news conference in Bern that the doomed pilot had been ordered to fly at 3,050 metres above sea level after losing radar contact with his team leader flying just ahead, but that the minimum level for this sector was 4,360 metres above sea level.

Why this order was given and whether this had a bearing on what came next is part of the ongoing investigation. The pilot’s reaction to the order is also being probed.

“We don’t know if the pilot realised he was on course for a collision,” said investigating magistrate Gionata Carmine. Also unclear is whether the pilot tried an evasive manoeuvre or used the ejector seat.

Too early to say

Overall, it is too early to say what exactly caused the accident and all possibilities are being investigated, military justice officials said. The full investigation is expected to take months. Experts are still at the accident site, collecting debris from the crash.

Officials had called the press conferenceexternal link to put an end to rumours circulating in the media about the possible cause of the accident. The air traffic control angle had already been raised by Swiss public television, SRFexternal link, as has been the possibility of technical failure.

The jet’s black box, which could provide valuable information about the crash, was still missing, said Carmine’s colleague Andreas Lukas Hagi.

“We must assume that we won’t have any usable data from the black box as it was probably destroyed in the severe impact… As this important source is missing in our investigation, we’ll have to get the information we need from other data sources and through interviews. This will take months, which is why, at the moment, we cannot assume that we will finish the preliminary gathering of evidence by the end of the year,” he told reporters.

In a statement Switzerland's air traffic control agency said it assumed responsibility for its involvement in the tragedy.

"It appears that the actions of the air traffic control contributed to the accident in the Susten region," it said. "At Skyguide we have been terribly affected by this event. We cannot turn the clock back... But together with all parties concerned we can draw lessons from this accident in order to continue to improve the safety of military aviation." 

The agency has opened its own internal investigation. The controller has been suspended.

Training mission

The single-seat aircraft had been participating in a training mission with another jet in a thick layer of clouds. Last contact with the missing pilot was at 16:05 pm Swiss time on that Monday. 

The two planes took off from the Meiringen military airport at 16:01 pm. The preliminary investigation found that the doomed pilot had relied on his instrument panel to follow his colleague, not eyesight, because of cloud cover. But several minutes after taking off he lost radar contact with the plane flying 15 seconds ahead. He then contacted Skyguide and ground control operators instructed him to ascend to about 3,050 meters. 

The missing pilot had responded to a radio call as expected at 16:05. However, he failed to reply to a second call. He and the other F/A-18 Hornet pilot were practising manoeuvres for a potential engagement with an F-5 Tiger aircraft.

Investigators say there is no evidence the jet experienced technical problems.

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