20 years ago there was one of the worst plane accidents in German airspace: near Überlingen, a DHL freighter and a Tupolev collided – 71 people died. A murder occurs more than a year after the disaster.

The flight to Barcelona should be a reward. The 49 children, some of whom were gifted, between the ages of eight and 16, wanted to take a charter flight from Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia, to fly with their parents to the Catalan metropolis. On the evening of July 1, 2002, their flight took off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport at around 9 p.m. local time. It was a Russian Tupolev Tu-154 of Bashkirian Airlines.

About two hours later, a DHL cargo plane took off from Bergamo in northern Italy that same evening. The destination of the Boeing 757 with two men in the cockpit was Brussels.

At around 11:20 p.m., both jets reached southern German airspace over Lake Constance. The agency responsible for monitoring the airspace was the air traffic control company Skyguide in Zurich. Contrary to the regulations, only one air traffic controller was on duty there for the sector. In addition, the telephone system was not functional due to maintenance work.

The Tupolev was on flight level 360 (flight level 360), the Boeing on flight level 260. But to save kerosene, the Boeing pilot asked air traffic controller Peter Nielsen in Zurich if he could climb to flight level 360. Nielsen gave him permission. At around 11.30 p.m. both aircraft were at the same altitude.

Even then, both commercial aircraft were equipped with the TCAS collision warning system. The systems promptly sounded the alarm at 11:34 p.m. The good thing about the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS): If the safety distance is not reached, not only does a warning sound in both cockpits, but the system also calculates corresponding avoidance recommendations. So the Tupolev should go into the climb, the DHL machine in the descent.

Crash over Owingen near Überlingen

At the same time, the air traffic controller on the ground recognizes that the machines are flying towards each other. But he made a crucial mistake: he instructed the captain of the Tupolev to fly down to flight level 350. The Russian crew noticed the contradiction, discussed it and again received the request from the ground station to descend, which they then followed immediately, as later evaluations of the black box revealed.

The Upper Area Control Center in Karlsruhe tried in vain to reach the colleagues in Zurich by telephone. At 11:35:32 p.m. there was a collision in the sky above Owingen near Überlingen on Lake Constance: 50 seconds after the TACS system sounded the alarm, the vertical stabilizer of the cargo plane severed the fuselage of the Tupolev with 69 people on board just before the wing attachment point. All 71 occupants of both planes are killed. The debris falls on fields and uninhabited areas, spread over square kilometers. “There were corpses of children scattered everywhere and suitcases with clothes that had burst open,” reports an eyewitness from the community of Owingen.

consequences of the disaster

More than 1000 helpers took part in salvaging the wrecks, a traumatic experience for everyone involved. The extensive investigation into the accident led to the safety recommendation that TCAS commands have been mandatory for pilots ever since – regardless of verbal instructions from air traffic control, in order to avoid similar disasters.

Several lawsuits by the survivors for damages against Skyguide and insurance companies lasted until 2013. The public prosecutor’s office also initiated proceedings against Skyguide employees on suspicion of negligent homicide, which ended with convictions and suspended sentences.

One of the survivors, who lost his wife and two children in the Überlingen accident, Ossetian Vitaly Kaloyev, practiced vigilantism: he traveled to Zurich in February 2004 and stabbed air traffic controller Peter Nielsen to death in front of his house in Kloten. The perpetrator was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for premeditated homicide. After his release from prison, he returned to his homeland and was celebrated there as a hero.

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