July 1

This Day in History

Disaster

Jul 1, 2002:

Two planes collide over Germany

A Russian Tupolev 154 collides in midair with a Boeing 757 cargo plane over southern Germany on this day in 2002. The 69 passengers and crew on the Russian plane and the two-person cargo crew were all killed. The collision occurred even though each plane had TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) collision-avoidance equipment onboard and everything functioned correctly.

The Bashkirian Airlines plane was carrying 45 young students from Russia to a resort near Barcelona in Spain for a summer vacation. DHL International, the express delivery company, owned the cargo jet, which was headed from Bahrain to Brussels.

The planes were both on their planned flight paths that evening, flying with their lights off in the dark, according to regulation. About 45 seconds before the crash, with each plane traveling at 35,000 feet, the TCAS system in each plane indicated to the pilots that they should change their altitude. The Boeing cargo jet was to descend and the Tupolev was supposed to rise. However, a Swiss air-traffic controller ordered the Tupolev pilot to descend as well.

As directed, both planes lowered their altitudes at the same time; they crashed in mid-air over Ueberlingen, Germany, very close to the Swiss border. There were no survivors of the fiery crash, which caused debris to scatter over a 20-mile radius. Residents of the area heard the thunderous impact, but no one on the ground was killed.

Swiss aviation officials immediately began blaming the Russian pilots for the tragedy, but the evidence soon showed their charges to be baseless. The pilots were experienced and the plane and its collision-avoidance system were in fine working order. Instead, it was the Swiss air-traffic system that appeared to be faulty. Their own collision-avoidance system was not in operation and they had only one controller on duty at the time.

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