The Tragedy Lingers Still

In Switzerland yesterday, a court handed down guilty verdicts to four employees of Skyguide, the Swiss company that runs the air traffic control system in that country.

Court finds four Skyguide employees guilty

”Three of eight defendants were handed suspended 12-month prison sentences on Tuesday, while the fourth was fined SFr13,500. The crash over southern Germany left 71 people, mostly children, dead.
The agency was responsible for the airspace on July 1, 2002 when a Bashkirian Airlines plane collided with a DHL cargo jet near the town of Überlingen. The two cargo pilots and everyone on the passenger plane, including a large group of Russian schoolchildren on a holiday trip to Spain, were killed.”

I have mixed emotions about the outcome. The parties responsible need to be held accountable. But in general, I agree with the current worldwide movement to decriminalize aviation accidents. It is a difficult subject and I’ll leave it for another day.

If you aren’t familiar with this accident you can get a bigger perspective about it from the BBC. They have their web page laid out right (and I’m not surprised.) The main story is on the left side of the page and all the previous articles they’ve published on the story are listed (with links) down the right side of the page. Just reading the headlines of the links pretty well tells the story.

Mid-air disaster claims 71 lives

Crash pilots given conflicting orders

Jet crash controller 'overburdened

There are more links. Many more. This tragedy just goes on and on and on. The BBC is to be commended for such excellent work.

This tragedy started when the controller working these two airplanes lost The Flick. For whatever reasons, he didn’t see the traffic in his mind and notice that he had two airplanes coming together. It is the fundamental skill that separates controllers from the rest of the world. Because it is such a rare skill, the rest of the world tries to minimize replace marginalize it. And I know -- with every fiber of my being -- that these efforts are grossly misguided.

The technology failed this controller. His government failed him. His management failed him. Even his fellow controller failed him. He had nothing left to rely on but his mind and that failed him too. He lost the flick.

He paid for it with his life. The father of some of the victims in the crash murdered him. It’s just one tragedy after another.

This accident is a textbook case about all the things that can go wrong in air traffic control. I urge you to learn everything you can about it. Take the lessons to heart and hopefully, we’ll avoid any other tragedies.

Here’s one place to start.

Say Again? #57: Überlingen

Don Brown
September 5, 2007


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