Editor’s Note: Consequence of a Tragedy

By David Jensen | September 1, 2002
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Some air accidents have more long-term impact on the aviation industry than others. The July 1 midair collision of the DHL Boeing 757-200 and the Bashkirian Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 trijet near the German/Swiss border is an accident in which the impact is sure to be far reaching. Occurring about 11:30 p.m. local time at approximately 35,000 feet, the crash took the lives of all crewmen plus 71 passengers in the Tu-154, 52 of whom were Russian children on their way to Barcelona.

The one positive aspect of the accident is that the on-board electronics reportedly worked as advertised. The Honeywell 2000 traffic alert collision avoidance system (TCAS), installed in both aircraft, provided the correct resolution advisory (RA): the Tu-154 was to climb and the B757 was to descend.

Also, Europe’s recently implemented, reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet were determined not to be a factor in the accident; the altitude-keeping performance of both aircraft had been verified and shown to be well within limits. Aircraft operators who have invested in TCAS and modern height monitoring and test equipment should feel assured of their investments’ worth.But, clearly, something did not work correctly late July 1, and much finger pointing took place immediately after the accident. Fingers were initially pointed at the Russian craft, thought to be old, poorly equipped and manned by crewmen who had poor English skills. In fact, the Tu-154–built in 1995, five years after the B757–proved to be quite adequately equipped. The flight data recorders revealed no technical problems (on either aircraft), and the Tu-154’s crew appeared to speak and comprehend English quite satisfactorily.

Fingers also have been pointed at Switzerland’s air traffic control (ATC) agency, Skyguide, which controlled the two aircraft over German airspace under a bilateral agreement between the two countries. We’ve read reports of the Zurich air traffic control (ATC) center being understaffed the night of July 1, of the center’s equipment being down for maintenance, and of the inability of German controllers in nearby Karlsruhe to make contact with the Zurich center by phone.

How damning are these factors? While the accident’s cause may well be ground-based, the Skyguide controllers and maintenance staff still may have complied with approved procedures. For example, ATC equipment, including radar processing, commonly is shut down for maintenance during the slower, late evening hours. And Skyguide has its "Single Manned Operation Procedures" to account for a controller’s break from duty. If no rules were broken at Zurich, investigators probably will call for procedural changes.

Broader issues have been raised as a result of the crash, as well. For example, skeptics of privatized ATC are quick to note that Skyguide is one of Europe’s two air traffic agencies not publicly owned–the other being the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which recently has reported financial difficulties. Was the midair crash–as some may want to assume–the result of cost-cutting measures for profits?

Also, how would the Single European Sky concept have affected the scenario? Would replacing the patchwork of national ATC agencies with a single, continent-wide service have prevented the tragedy of July1? We have witnessed the debate on these issues escalate among controller unions, ATC providers, governments and industry.

Beyond European borders there exists another issue, involving cultural differences. Russian pilots reportedly are trained to follow the controller’s directions–apparently regardless of what their airborne systems tell them, as would seem evident in the July 1 midair. Western pilots pay greater heed to their on-board systems. A universal standard procedure should be set and emphasized.

Results from the investigation into the July 1 midair collision will no doubt call for procedural changes. But the long-term effect probably won’t stop there. Look for institutional changes, as well.

Evans Honored–Again

He has done it again. David Evans, our "Safety in Avionics" columnist has won another award for his journalism–the latest received in London at the Aerospace Journalist of the Year Awards ceremony, presented by the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAS).

David is this year’s winner of the World Leadership Forum Award for best avionics submission, which was his May 2001 column titled "Hazards in the Cabin." This is David’s second RAS award in this category. We are proud of David, whose trophy case must be sagging, having also won the 2002 Neal Award for best column earlier this year. Indeed, we take pride in the fact that writers for Avionics Magazine have won four RAS awards over the past four years, including Journalist of the Year, by Kathleen Kocks.

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