Did Nielsen really deserve to be killed ?
Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 was a chartered flight from Moscow, Russia to Barcelona, Spain, carrying sixty passengers and nine crew. Forty-five of the passengers were Russian schoolchildren from the city of Ufa in Bashkortostan on a school trip organized by the local UNESCO committee to the Costa Daurada area of Spain. Most of the parents of the children were high-ranking officials in Bashkortostan. One of the fathers was the head of the local UNESCO committee.
The aircraft, a Tupolev Tu-154M registered as RA-85816, was piloted by an experienced Russian crew: 52-year-old Captain Alexander Mihailovich Gross (Александр Михайлович Гросс) and 40-year-old First Officer Oleg Pavlovich Grigoriev (Олег Павлович Григорьев). The captain had more than 12,000 flight hours to his credit. Grigoriev, the chief pilot of Bashkirian Airlines, had 8,500 hours of flying experience and his task was to evaluate Captain Gross's performance throughout the flight. 41-year-old Murat Ahatovich Itkulov (Мурат Ахатович Иткулов), a seasoned pilot with close to 7,900 flight hours who was normally the first officer, did not officially serve on duty due to the captain's assessment. 50-year-old Sergei Kharlov, a flight navigator with approximately 13,000 flight hours, and 37-year-old Flight Engineer Oleg Valeev, who had almost 4,200 flight hours, joined the three pilots in the cockpit.
DHL Flight 611, a Boeing 757-23APF cargo aircraft registered as A9C-DHL, had originated in Bahrain and was being flown by two Bahrain-based pilots, 47-year-old British Captain Paul Phillips and 34-year-old Canadian First Officer Brant Campioni. Both pilots were very experienced – the captain had clocked close to 12,000 flight hours and the first officer had accumulated more than 6,600 flight hours. At the time of the accident, the aircraft was en route from Bergamo, Italy to Brussels, Belgium.
The two aircraft were flying at flight level 360 (36,000 feet, 10,973 m) on a collision course. Despite being just inside the German border, the airspace was controlled from Zürich, Switzerland, by the private Swiss airspace control company Skyguide. The only air traffic controller handling the airspace, Peter Nielsen, was working two workstations at the same time. He did not realize the problem in time and thus failed to keep the aircraft at a safe distance from each other. Only less than a minute before the accident did he realize the danger and contacted Flight 2937, instructing the pilot to descend by a thousand feet to avoid collision with crossing traffic (Flight 611). Seconds after the Russian crew initiated the descent, however, their traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) instructed them to climb, while at about the same time the TCAS on Flight 611 instructed the pilots of that aircraft to descend. Had both aircraft followed those automated instructions, the collision would not have occurred.
Flight 611's pilots on the Boeing jet followed the TCAS instructions and initiated a descent, but could not immediately inform Nielsen because the controller was dealing with Flight 2937. About eight seconds before the collision, Flight 611's descent rate was about 2,400 feet per minute (12 m/s), not as rapid as the 2,500 to 3,000 ft/min (13 to 15 m/s) range advised by TCAS. Having already commenced his descent, as instructed by the controller, the pilot on the Tupolev disregarded the TCAS instruction to climb, thus both planes were now descending.
Unaware of the TCAS-issued alerts, Nielsen repeated his instruction to Flight 2937 to descend, giving the Tupolev crew incorrect information as to the position of the DHL plane. Maintenance work was being carried out on the main radar system, which meant that the controllers were forced to use a slower system.
The aircraft collided at almost a right angle at an altitude of 34,890 feet (10,630 m), with the Boeing's vertical stabilizer slicing completely through Flight 2937's fuselage just ahead of the Tupolev's wings. The Tupolev exploded and broke into several pieces, scattering wreckage over a wide area. The nose section of the aircraft fell vertically, while the tail section with the engines continued, stalled, and fell. The crippled Boeing, now with 80% of its vertical stabilizer lost, struggled for a further seven kilometers (four miles) before crashing into a wooded area close to the village of Taisersdorf at a 70-degree downward angle. Each engine ended up several hundred metres away from the main wreckage, and the tail section was torn from the fuselage by trees just before impact. All 69 people on the Tupolev, and the two on board the Boeing, died.