- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

UEBERLINGEN, Germany Swiss authorities said a collision-warning system was out of service in the Zurich tower when it took control of a Russian airliner and a cargo jet shortly before they collided at 35,000 feet, killing 71 persons, mostly children headed for an end-of-school beach holiday.
As an international investigation began, Swiss air-traffic control also acknowledged yesterday that one of the two controllers on duty had left the tower for a break during the maintenance operation on the warning system, which alerts controllers to the danger of a collision.
Patrick Herr, a spokesman for Swiss air-traffic control, said it was "a purely theoretical question" whether the system alone could have prevented the disaster. "Many signs point to an exceptionally unlucky combination of circumstances," he said.
Maintenance on the warning system typically is done during periods of light air traffic. Monday's collision happened shortly before midnight.
Officials at Skyguide, the Swiss air-traffic control company, gave conflicting accounts on whether the controller's break was authorized.
Anton Maag, chief of the Zurich airport control tower, said Skyguide rules forbid leaving a lone controller on duty without the aid of the warning system. But one of his aides, Philipp Seiler, later said the rule does not apply at night.
Russian investigators sent to Germany by President Vladimir Putin toured the debris field yesterday and met local investigators in the nearby town of Friedrichshafen.
The Russian charter jetliner and a Boeing 757 cargo plane collided late Monday over Germany, leaving a 20-mile-wide debris field near Ueberlingen, a vacation spot set in rolling hills and forests on Lake Constance across from Switzerland. Five U.S. investigators also were expected on the scene.
The children on the Russian plane, standout students from the city of Ufa, were on their way to a Spanish beach resort near Barcelona. A travel agent who helped organize the trip said yesterday that 45 of the 69 persons on board were known to be children, fewer than the 52 reported earlier.
Two pilots died aboard the cargo plane operated by DHL International delivery service, flying from Bahrain to Brussels with a stop in Bergamo, Italy.
Swiss officials already were facing criticism for not giving the Russian pilot enough time to lower the Tupolev Tu-154 he was flying for Bashkirian Airlines out of the way of the Boeing 757 cargo jet. The Swiss officials insist the 50-second warning should have been sufficient, but a pilot representative said pilots count on five to 10 minutes' warning.
Initially, Swiss air-traffic control said that it gave the Russian plane about two minutes' warning and that the pilot responded after a third request. But the Swiss revised their account after German officials began describing the tighter time scenario.
The Russian pilot heeded the command to descend after a second warning. But the cargo jet was equipped with a radar collision-avoidance system that told its pilots to descend as well. The result was a fiery collision.


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