Swiss cheese

July 11, 2002

THE SWISS HAVE a reputation and the Russians have a reputation, and how easy it must have been for Switzerland's aviation authorities to dump all the blame on a single Russian pilot when things went horribly wrong and a plane full of children had collided with another and crashed into southern Germany.

Swiss: Competent, efficient, modern, like clockwork.

Russian: Reckless, slapdash, emotional, probably drunk.

This was the subtext of the script that went out around the world in the hours following the crash July 1, and a large part of the world bought it. News services began running articles about junky Russian planes, cataloging other Russian catastrophes. Experts speculated on the pilot's primitive understanding of English, the language of international aviation. They guessed that he might have been asleep at the controls. The smug Western chorus, under Swiss leadership, was tuning up.

But the Swiss had failed to reckon with another national reputation -- that of the Germans, who are nothing if not thorough -- and it mattered because it's the Germans who are conducting the crash investigation.

In short order, German investigators have learned that the Russian pilot spoke excellent English. They have learned that much of what Swiss officials said after the accident was not true. The air traffic controller in Zurich did not give the Russian pilot three orders to descend, but only two, and those orders did not begin two minutes before the crash but only 44 seconds before. And it gets worse.

Air traffic controllers in nearby Bavaria saw the crash coming, and tried to warn their counterpart in Zurich. But the Swiss controller was working solo, and without the usual warning system up and running. He didn't answer the call from Bavaria because he was using the only available phone to try to call a small airfield where a private plane under his control was heading for a landing. The Zurich controller couldn't get the call through, and finally noticed the impending collision of the Russian plane and a freight carrier chartered to DHL less than a minute before it took place. Impulsively, he told the Russian pilot to descend.

This is where the Russian made his only mistake -- he listened to the Johnny-come-lately voice from Zurich. His collision avoidance system was telling him to climb. After understandably hesitating in the face of conflicting instructions, he obeyed a second order from Switzerland -- and that's why he and 70 other people are dead.

After the catastrophe, Swiss authorities spread a considerable amount of disinformation. It's galling to think that they imagined they could get away with it, presumably because the slandered party was from that bearish, incomprehensible, not-like-us country to the east. Credit is due the German investigators for getting so quickly at the truth, before the world's attention had faded. It's a good lesson -- and not just for the Swiss, but for anyone who has ever felt justified by a sense of superiority.

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