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10 Mid-Air Collisions Involving Commercial Airliners

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Aviation accidents quickly make headlines around the world, but statistically, commercial airline travel is the safest mode of transportation. On the thankfully rare occasions when an incident happens or catastrophe strikes, meticulous failure investigation allows to continuously improve the safety of air travel.

Typically takeoff and landing are the more dangerous parts of a flight. Yet sometimes unfortunately even mid-air collisions occur. The following list focuses on the causes of ten mid-air collisions and the lessons learned from these tragedies.

1. Collision Over the Grand Canyon (30 June 1956)

UA Flight 718 / TWA Flight 2

Departing from the same airport

United Airlines Flight 718 and Trans World Airlines Flight 2 took off from Los Angeles International Airport on the morning of June 30, 1956, only minutes apart. The Douglas DC-7 of UA Flight 718 was bound to Chicago while the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation of TWA Flight 2 was heading to Kansas City. Both planes initially were flying under instrument flight rules (IFR). The DC-7 climbed to an authorized altitude of 21,000 ft (6,400 m), while the Super Constellation at first climbed to 19,000 ft (5,791 m).

Thunderheads ahead

TWA's Captain Gandy then requested to climb to 21,000 feet (6,400 m) due to thunderheads on his flight path but was denied authorization. He then requested “1,000 on top” clearance (i.e. flying 1,000 ft (305 m) above the clouds) which was granted by air traffic control (ATC).

Flying in uncontrolled airspace

Both airplanes were by now flying in uncontrolled airspace where it is the pilot's responsibility to maintain separation according to visual flight rules (VFR). Ultimately the Constellation climbed to 21,000 feet (6,400 m) as well as the DC-7. The flight paths of the two planes unfortunately precisely intersected at a 13-degree angle over the Grand Canyon National Park.

Collision

The collision occurred at about 10:30 a.m. when the DC-7's left wing struck the Constellation's fuselage at the vertical stabilizer base, causing the tail assembly to break away. The Constellation immediately went into an almost vertical dive and disintegrated on impact. The DC-7, having lost part of its left wing and one engine, was unable to provide enough lift and went also down in a left spiral. The collision caused a total of 128 fatalities and was the first commercial airline crash to result in more than 100 deaths.

Investigation

The post-crash analysis determined the DC-7 pilots did take evasive action and must have noticed the Constellation. Overall the investigation proved difficult due to the severity of impact and the lack of data recorders and radar contact. Ultimately a combination of factors might have contributed to the crash, including foremost limited visibility due to clouds, but also limited cockpit view, preoccupation with flying duties, and inadequacy of air traffic control infrastructure.

The airlines and the public largely blamed the air traffic controller who had given clearance to Captain Grandy to fly on top 1,000 but the controller was cleared of wrongdoing as at the time of the collision the planes were in uncontrolled airspace.

Aftermath

The crash rose awareness about the primitive state of air traffic control and funds were soon provided to modernize ATC, including radar which previously had almost exclusively being reserved for military equipment.

The crash sites

The crash sites

2. New York Mid-Air Collision (16 December 1960)

UA Flight 826 / TWA Flight 266

About four years after the fatal collision over the Grand Canyon, another crash involving the same airlines and similar aircrafts occurred over New York City: United Airlines Flight 826 carrying 84 people on a Douglas DC-8 was on its way from Chicago to New York's Idlewild Airport (now JFK Airport), when during descent it collided with the Lockheed Super Constellation of TWA Flight 266 coming from Columbus, Ohio and descending into New York's LaGuardia Airport. The combined fatalities of the two planes were 128; precisely the same as in the Grand Canyon collision, although in the New York crash there were a further six fatalities on the ground when the DC-8 crashed into an apartment block in Brooklyn. The accident became also known as the Park Slope plane crash or the Miller Field crash, named after the plane's respective crash sites.

Investigation

Approaching New York under the conditions of light rain and fog, the DC-8 had received clearance until the so-called Preston intersection, while flight recorders later revealed at the time of impact the plane had already been 12 mi (19 km) off course. A contributing factor was the malfunctioning of a VOR receiver which had made it more difficult for the pilots to identify their allocated airspace.

Aftermath

Following the crash, the Federal Aviation Agency established new rules to prevent the recurrence of similar accidents. One new regulation required pilots to report all malfunctions of navigation or communication equipment. Another revised regulation limited the speed limit near airports to 250 knots (the DC-8 had been traveling at 300 knots).

The Park Slope plane crash

The Park Slope plane crash

3. All Nippon Airways Flight 58 (30 July 1971)

ANA Flight 58 / JASDF F-86F Sabre Jet Fighter

Over time there have been a series of airliner crashes involving military aircraft. One major accident occurred on July 30, 1971, when an All Nippon Airways (ANA) domestic flight collided with a Sabre jet fighter of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

The Boeing 727 of ANA Flight 58 had been en route from Sapporo to Tokyo when at cruising altitude near the town of Shuizukuishi its flightpath crossed those of two jet fighter pilots practicing air combat maneuvering.

Collision

One of the two Sabre jet fighters was piloted by a 22-year-old trainee with only a few hours of flying experience. As his instructor had warned him rather late about the airliner, while intending to back off, the right wing of the trainee's jet fighter struck the Boeing's left horizontal stabilizer. The damage caused both planes to enter a steep dive.

All 162 passengers onboard ANA Flight 58 were killed in the crash, while the trainee pilot was able to deploy his parachute and land safely. The accident was the deadliest aviation disaster at the time and to this day remains the third deadliest on Japanese soil.

Aftermath

In the aftermath, the head of Japan's Defense Agency and the chief of staff of the JASDF took responsibility and resigned. The trainee pilot was ultimately acquitted, while his instructor was found guilty of criminally negligent manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison besides losing his job.

An ANA Boeing 727 similar to the accident aircraft

An ANA Boeing 727 similar to the accident aircraft

4. Nantes Mid-Air Collision (5 March 1973)

Iberia Flight 504 / Spantax Flight 400

Air traffic controllers on strike

In March 1973 the civilian French Air Traffic Control (ATC) was on strike so that France's air space was controlled by the military. On March 5 two airliners from Spain en route to London Heathrow were cruising over the city of Nantes. Due to the limited availability of flight levels, a time-based separation was assumed and both airliners had the assigned flight level of 290 (29,000 feet).

A time-based separation gone bad

Iberia Flight 504 carrying 68 passengers heading home from Palma de Mallorca was supposed to pass the Nantes VOR point at 12:52, while Spantax Flight 400, which had departed from Madrid, was supposed to arrive at the same waypoint around 13:00. Yet the Spantax Convair was slightly ahead of schedule, so that the Spantax pilots requested permission to circle, as simply slowing the aircraft wouldn't have delayed the arrival sufficiently. Unfortunately, the communication with ATC was poor, also complicated by the fact that the planes were on the boundary of two ATC sectors.

Collision

Finally, the Spantax crew began an unauthorized maneuver (as they didn't get a response from ATC) of 360 degrees that brought them right in the flightpath of the DC-9 of Iberia: the two planes collided over Nantes. The DC-9 broke up in mid-air and then crashed to the ground instantly killing all 68 people on board.

Emergancy landing

The Spantax Convair suffered a badly damaged wing but the pilots managed a successful emergency landing in nearby Cognac and no one was harmed. It was later determined that had one more meter of wing surface been lost the Spantax Convair 990 would have been unrecoverable.

Investigation

The failure of ATC to properly assign the flight routes, communication problems between ATC and the crews, as well as the Spantax pilots undertaking an unauthorized maneuver under poor visibility were all contributing factors in this accident.

Aftermath

Following the accident, most of the world's airlines boycotted France's air space for days. The air traffic controllers' strike ended after one month on March 21 without resolution mainly due to the negative financial impact it was having on the industry.

Seven air traffic controllers accused of leading the illegal strike were dismissed from their jobs by the Minister of Transport.

A Spantax Convair 990 similar to the one involved in the accident

A Spantax Convair 990 similar to the one involved in the accident

5. Zagreb Mid-Air Collision (10 September 1976)

British Airways Flight 476 / Inex-Adria Flight 550


On September 10, 1976, British Airways Flight 476 was en route from London to Istanbul with 54 passengers and a crew of 9. Crossing over from Austria into Yugoslavia (now Croatia) the crew contacted air traffic control (ATC) advising that they would reach the Zagreb waypoint at 10:14 at flight level 330 (33,000 ft / 10,050 m).

Around the same time, the Inex-Adria Flight 550 on its way from Split to Cologne with 108 passengers and a crew of 5 contacted ATC Zagreb to ask authorization for a higher flight level (FL) from its current FL 260.

Zagreb air traffic control

At the time the Zagreb air traffic control was organized in three sectors by altitude: the lower sector for aircraft flying below 25,000 ft (7,600 m)), the middle sector for altitudes between 25,000 ft (7,600 m) and 31,000 ft (9,400 m), and the upper flight level sector for aircraft flying above 31,000 ft (9,400 m).

When controller Erjavec, in charge of the middle sector, saw that within his range of altitudes there were no options available to grant Flight 550's request, he sent a colleague to reach out to the upper sector console. The co-worker went to controller Tasic, in charge of the upper sector, who ultimately authorized the climb, yet the handover was not done properly as Tasic was busy handling multiple tasks and the incident also occurred at the change of a shift. Yet the Inex-Adria Flight 550 was now authorized to climb to FL 350.

When about two minutes later Tasic became aware of the imminent danger on his screen he called out in panic to Flight 550 in his native Serbo-Croatian language to immediately stop from climbing any further from their current FL 327. Had this communication be done in English, as it was supposed to be, Flight 476 could have become aware of their collision course and have taken action.

Collision

Instead, the DC-9 of Flight 550 leveled out precisely at FL 330 where also BA Flight 476 was. Shortly afterward the two planes collided with the DC-9's left wing cutting through the Trident's front part of the fuselage causing explosive decompression. Both aircraft rapidly fell to the ground killing everyone on board. A Lufthansa captain flying nearby saw the collision as a flash of lightning and the two planes falling from the sky.

Investigation

In the aftermath, all the Zagreb air traffic controllers were indicted but only Tasic was sentenced to prison. The investigation had found improper ATC operational procedures as the root cause of the accident, as well as non-performance of look-out duties from the cockpits of either aircraft as contributing factors.

The full accident report by the AAIB can be found here.

The Zagreb mid-air collision is perhaps the very definition of an avoidable tragedy. Unfortunately, tragedy had to strike to highlight the importance of strictly adhering to flight operation procedures and regulations.

The mid-air collision over Zagreb: an avoidable tragedy

The mid-air collision over Zagreb: an avoidable tragedy

DatePlaceFlightAircraftFatalitiesSurvivorsMode

June 30, 1956

Grand Canyon, Arizona, US

UA Flight 718 / TWA Flight 2

Douglas DC-7 / Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation

128

0

Cruising

December 16, 1960

New York City, US

UA Flight 826 / TWA Flight 266

Douglas DC-8 / Lockheed L-1049A Super Constellation

134

0

Descent

July 30, 1971

Shuizukuishi, Japan

ANA Flight 58 / JASDF jet fighter

Boeing 727 / Mitsubishi F-86F Sabre

162

0

Cruising

March 5, 1973

Nantes, France

Iberia Flight 504 / Spantax Flight 400

Douglas DC-9 / Convair 990

68

107

Cruising

September 10, 1976

Zagreb, Yugoslavia

BA Flight 476 / Inex-Adria Flight 550

Trident 3B / Douglas DC-9

176

0

Cruising

September 25, 1978

San Diego, California, US

PSA Flight 182 / Private Flight

Boeing 727 / Cessna 172

144

0

Descent

August 11, 1979

Dniprodzerzhynsk, USSR

Aeroflot Flight 7628 / Aeroflot Flight 7880

Tupolev Tu-134A / Tupolev Tu-134A

178

0

Cruising

November 12, 1996

Charkhi Dadri, India

Saudia Flight 763 / KZA Flight 1907

Boeing 747 / Ilyushin Il-76

349

0

Climb / Descent

July 1, 2002

Überlingen, Germany

Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 / DHL Flight 611

Tupolev Tu-154M / Boeing 757

71

0

Cruising

September 26, 2006

Mato Grosso, Brazil

Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907 / ExcelAire (delivery flight)

Boeing 737 / Embraer Legacy 600

154

7

Cruising

6. San Diego Air Crash (25 September 1978)

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 / Private Flight

Flying under clear skies

On September 25, 1978, the weather over San Diego was sunny and clear. The Boeing 727 of Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) Flight 182 had been en route from Sacramento via Los Angeles to San Diego and was now on final approach.

Lindbergh air traffic control (ATC) in San Diego had advised the PSA crew about a Cessna light aircraft in the area. Both planes had to maintain separation according to visual flight rules.

At first, the crew of Flight 182 apparently had made out the small Cessna but then lost sight of it. Furthermore, due to radio static, a hypothetical statement about the Cessna made by the PSA captain to ATC came through as if he had actually seen the light aircraft passing. Unfortunately, the PSA crew did not notify ATC that they had lost sight of the Cessna.

Collision

Shortly afterward the right wing of the descending (and overtaking) Boeing 727 collided with the Cessna about 2,600 feet (790 m) over San Diego. The Boeing 727 immediately took fire and went into a nose-dive crashing into a residential area The almost vertical impact at high speed caused an explosion that virtually destroyed the entire aircraft and a number of houses resulting in a horrible crash site.

In addition to the 135 fatalities of Flight 182 and the two pilots of the Cessna, there were also seven killed on the ground. At the time it was the worst air traffic accident in the US.

Investigation

According to the NTSB, the main cause of the crash was that the PSA crew lost sight of the Cessna while they must have had it in the lower part of their windshield. Furthermore, the PSA crew did not report this important fact to ATC.

The small aircraft flying below in front of them might have been difficult to make out as its yellow fuselage blended in with the multicolored residential area in the background. Also, the motion of the Cessna, as viewed from the Boeing cockpit, was minimized as both aircraft were approximately on the same course. Yet the cockpit voice recorder later also revealed conversation in the PSA cockpit that was out of place during the critical approach phase and that might have distracted from flight duties.

The Cessna pilots who had been on a flight training mission were navigating under visual flight rules which did not require the filing of a flight path. Yet ATC had assigned them a heading of 70°, while they actually took a heading of 90° without notifying ATC. Had they remained on the assigned course, the planes might have narrowly avoided each other.

There were also errors by ATC who relied on visual flight rules (VFR) when they already had radar available.

The accident report by the NTSB can be found here.

Aftermath

As a result of the crash, the NTSB recommended the implementation of a Terminal Radar Service Area to provide for the separation of aircraft, first at Lindbergh Field, then extended to other airports. Subsequently, the so-called Class B airspace was introduced which requires all aircraft flying in an airport's airspace to operate under “positive radar control”.

As a result of this and a similar collision in 1986, the Traffic Collision Alert and Avoidance System (TCAS) was introduced. It visually and audibly alerts the pilots when two aircraft are approaching each other and directs pilots to climb or descend to avoid a collision.

Wreckage of PSA Flight 182

Wreckage of PSA Flight 182

7. Dniprodzerzhynsk Mid-Air Collision (11 August 1979)

Aeroflot Flight 7628 / Aeroflot Flight 7880

August 11, 1979, was a day of infamy for the Soviet flag carrier Aeroflot (and even more so for the families who lost their loved ones) when two of its domestic passenger jets collided over Dniprodzerzhynsk (now Kamianske). Flight 7628 was en route from Chelyabinsk via Voronezh to Kishinev with 88 passengers and six crew members, while Flight 7880 had departed from Donetsk and was heading to Minsk with 77 passengers and a crew of seven.

Both planes had to pass through the Kharkiv air traffic control center, which was characterized by high traffic density, especially in the southwest sector from 180° to 255°. Regular flight operations were furthermore disrupted on that day because Leonid Brezhnev was heading to Crimea and the Soviet authorities had to arrange a clear flight path for their leader.

Air traffic control at its worst

The shift in charge of ATC on that fateful day was headed by Sergei Sergeev, who for the challenging southwest sector employed a 20-year-old inexperienced controller, Nikolai Zhukovsky, under the supervision of senior controller Vladimir Sumy.

At 13:17 the crew of Flight 7628 contacted ATC to report their current flight level of 8,400 m (27,560 ft) and request permission to climb to 9,600 m (31,500 ft), which was not granted by Zhukovsky. The controller furthermore recorded the crew's waypoint information incorrectly which placed the aircraft ahead of schedule.

At 13:30 the crew of Flight 7880 reported that they were 25 km (15,5 mi) from the Dnipropetrovsk beacon at flight level 7,200 m (23,620 ft) when the controller instructed them to climb to 8,400 m (27,560 ft).

The airway corridors of Flight 7628 (Airway 50, course 201°) and Flight 7880 (Airway 147, course 300°) intersected near Dniprodzerzhynsk at an angle of 99°. Because of previous errors, the controller's perception of the location of each aircraft was incorrect.

When Zhukovsky's supervisor Sumy saw both aircraft converging on the radar screen he ordered Flight 7880 to climb from 8,400 (27,560 ft) to 9,000 m (29,530 ft) (after ordering an Ilyushin IL-62 cruising at that altitude to increase its climb). Sumy then only received a muffled response and wrongly assumed it had come from Flight 7880.

Collision

Instead, the Tupolev Tu-34A of Flight 7880 continued to cruise at FL 8,400 m (27,560 ft). Shortly afterward the two planes collided in a cloud. Flight 7880 had lost part of the empennage and one engine and its crew briefly tried an emergency landing before at 4,000 m (13,125 ft) the crew finally lost control of the aircraft and both planes crashed to the ground. The captain of a nearby Antonov An-2 reported having seen something falling from the sky.

Investigation

Investigators did find no fault with the crew and their training, maintenance, weight, or center of gravity of the aircraft involved. Instead, the accident was caused by mistakes and violations made by air traffic controllers.

In particular, Zhukovsky did not allow Flight 7628 to climb to 9,600 m although this could have easily been arranged by slightly adjusting the groundspeed to maintain separation from other aircraft. He furthermore ordered Flight 7880 to climb to the fateful altitude of 8,400 although this had not been requested by the crew.

In the last minute before the collision, senior controller Sumy had received a vague answer not bothering whether it really came from Flight 7880 and not making sure the crew had really understood his order, in a clear violation of proper communication procedures.

Controllers Zhukosky and Sumy were both sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in a penal colony.

A Tupolev Tu-34A similar to the two aircraft that collided over Dniprodzerzhynsk (USSR)

A Tupolev Tu-34A similar to the two aircraft that collided over Dniprodzerzhynsk (USSR)

8. Charkhi Dadri Mid-Air Collision (12 November 1996)

Saudia Flight 763 / Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907

Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 763 had departed from Delhi airport in the late afternoon of November 12, 1996, and was en route to Dharan in Saudi Arabia. The Boeing 747 was carrying 289 passengers with a crew of 23 and had climbed to the authorized altitude of 14,000 ft (4,300 m).

Heading in the opposite direction was Flight KZA 1907, an Ilyushin Il-76 coming from Kazakhstan and heading to Delhi with a total of 37 people on board.

Both flights were handled by the same approach controller who had also cleared KZA 1907 to descent to 15,000 ft (4,600 m). The KZA crew had then reported their presumed flight level of 15,000 ft (4,600 m) to ATC, while they actually were at 14,435 ft (4,400 m) and still descending! The two planes in fact were now on the same airway corridor at the same altitude and traveling in opposite directions.

Collision

Shortly before colliding the KZA radio operator finally noticed that they were at the wrong altitude, but by then it was already too late. The two planes collided inside a cloud about 100 km (60 mi) from Delhi with the Ilyiushin's tail cutting through the Boeing 747's left wing.

A USAF pilot that by chance happened to be in the area reported a large cloud lit up with an orange glow. Both planes crashed killing all 349 people onboard the two flights in what became the world's deadliest mid-air collision.

Upon realizing that they were at the wrong altitude the KZA pilot had climbed slightly a few seconds before impact. Without this counteraction, the KZA Ilyushin would have likely narrowly passed under the Saudi Arabian plane.

Investigation

The investigation by the Indian authorities made out the failure of the KZA crew to follow ATC instructions as the ultimate cause of the accident. Part of the problem was the lack of English language skills of the KZA pilots who instead relied on their radio operator for translations. The radio operator in turn did not have direct access to the flight instruments but had to look over the pilot's shoulders.

  • Other conditions, though not the cause of the accident, were not ideal to guarantee the safety of air travel: Delhi ATC had only primary radar control which shows an aircraft's distance but does neither identify flights nor show flight levels.
  • As much of the airspace around Delhi is used by Indian Air Force, incoming and outbound commercial planes to Delhi travel on the same airway corridor.
  • Neither aircraft was equipped with TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System).

Aftermath

Following the tragic mid-air collision over Charkhi Dadri, traffic collision avoidance systems became mandatory in India. These warn pilots, independently from ATC, of planes coming too close to each other and instruct pilots to either climb or descent to avoid a collision. This measure also set a precedent: soon TCAS became mandatory on a global scale.

Unfortunately, a catastrophe had to strike before action was taken and the necessary security measures put in place.

The Boeing 747 that later collided with an IL-62 near Delhi

The Boeing 747 that later collided with an IL-62 near Delhi

9. Überlingen Mid-Air Collision (1 July 2002)

Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 / DHL Flight 611

Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 was a chartered flight from Moscow to Barcelona carrying 60 passengers, including 45 children on a school trip, and a crew of nine. Near the Lake of Constance on the Swiss-German border its flight path crossed that of a DHL cargo plane en route from Bergamo, Italy to Brussels, Belgium. Both aircraft were flying at the same altitude of 36,000 ft (11,000 m).

ATC Zürich

Despite being in Germany the air space was controlled by Switzerland through Skyguide, a private air traffic control service company. On the fateful night, there was only one controller in place who had to handle two workstations.

Furthermore, a ground-based collision warning system that could have warned the controller of the pending collision about two and a half minutes in advance, was switched off due to maintenance.

In these circumstances, it happened that the busy controller noticed that the two planes were on a collision course only about one minute before the accident.

Once alarmed by the two dots on his radar screen getting closer, he immediately instructed Flight 2937 to descent to 35,000 ft (10,670 m). He also incorrectly informed the Russian crew that they had crossing traffic from the right, when in fact it was from their left.

TCAS ambiguities

Only seconds after the crew of Flight 2937 initiated the descent, their TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) instructed them to climb. This confused the pilots who nonetheless followed ATC instructions.

At the same time, the TCAS of Flight 611 instructed its crew to descent, instructions that were promptly followed by the DHL pilots. They also tried to inform the controller about their TCAS descent but were unable to get through.

Collision

A few seconds from the collision the respective crews made visual contact with each other's aircraft. But by then it was too late to change course and avoid the collision. The two aircraft collided at an almost vertical angle with the Boeing's vertical stabilizer cutting through the Tupolev's fuselage just before its wings. The pilots of the DHL plane with the crippled stabilizer struggled on for a few kilometers before crashing into the woods. Both pilots were killed in the crash as well as the 69 persons on board the Bashkirian flight.

Investigation

The main cause of the accident was a series of shortcomings on the part of the private Swiss air traffic control service Skyguide.

For one, they had just one controller in place, while the second one on duty was resting in another room for the night. Although this was against Skyguide's regulations it had been a common practice for years and was known and tolerated by management.

Furthermore, the controller had not been informed about the limited functionality of his workstation due to maintenance.

Ambiguities in the use of TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) further contributed to the tragedy as it was not entirely clear whether TCAS had to be considered as an aid to ATC or whether it should have taken precedence in case of conflicting advisories.

The official accident report by the German authorities can be found here.

Aftermath

To resolve ambiguities in the use of TCAS the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) amended its regulations giving TCAS advisories always precedence over ATC instructions.

On the other hand, Skyguide was required to implement the SAFIR (Safety First) action plan which aims to:

  • establish and improve a safety-oriented corporate culture
  • increase its training capacities
  • increase staffing levels
  • expand its risk management
  • and introduce a licensing procedure for its staff and a certification process for its technical facilities.

ATC controller murdered

On February 24, 2004, Peter Nielsen, the controller on duty at the moment of the collision, was murdered at his home near Zürich in an apparent act of revenge by a Russian citizen who had lost his wife and two children in the crash.

Skyguide Memorial to the Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 incident and the murder of Peter Nielsen

Skyguide Memorial to the Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 incident and the murder of Peter Nielsen

10. Mid-Air Collision Over the Amazon (29 September 2006)

Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907 / ExcelAire (delivery flight)

Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907 was a domestic passenger flight from Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, over Brasilia to Rio de Janeiro. The Boeing 737 was carrying 148 passengers and had a crew of six.

The other aircraft involved was an Embraer Legacy 600 business jet, newly bought by ExcelAire, on its delivery flight from the Embraer factory in Brazil to the U.S. with planned stopovers in Brazil city and Fort Lauderdale. It had a total of seven occupants, including the two pilots.

Collision

Without prior warning or the crews being aware the two planes collided almost head-on over the Amazon with the Embraer's left winglet shearing off about half of the 737's left wing. The Boeing went into a nosedive crashing into a remote area of the Amazon rainforest killing everyone on board.

Despite serious damage and with the radio support of a nearby 747 cargo plane the Embraer Legacy made a successful emergency landing at a military airport about 100 mi (160 km) from the collision point.

Grateful for their second chance at life, its occupants could only speculate by what they had been hit, yet none dared to imagine it being a much larger plane.

Among them was also a journalist, Joe Sharkey, who had been supposed to write an article on executive business travel. Instead, a few days on the New York Times would publish his article on the experience of a different sort: Colliding With Death at 37,000 Feet and Living.

Investigation

The accident was investigated by the Brazilian (CENIPA) and the U.S. (NTSB) authorities. The main cause were errors by air traffic control which had cleared both aircraft to flight level 37,000 ft (11,000 m) thereby setting them on a collision course. There had also been faults in the handover of the two flights between ATC stations and how the loss of radar signals were handled.

The recovery of the Boeing in a dense jungle environment lasted several weeks and required 200 army troops. The analysis of the flight data and cockpit voice recorder showed the pilots had not seen each other's plane approaching nor taken evasive action.

The accident could have been averted by TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System). Unfortunately, the Embraer experienced a TCAS outage which furthermore had been signaled solely by a small static white text message, of which its crew remained unaware.

The authorities of the countries involved differed in their evaluation on this point, with the Brazilian CENIPA asserting the crash was caused by mistakes of both air traffic control and the ExcelAire pilots, while the American NTSB evaluated the actions of the Embraer pilots as only contributing but not a causal factor of the crash.

Damaged left wing and horizontal stabilizer of the Embraer Legacy jet

Damaged left wing and horizontal stabilizer of the Embraer Legacy jet

References:

  • YouTube: The Flight Channel/respective flights
  • Wikipedia/respective flights
  • National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
  • Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB)
  • German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation (BFU)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Marco Pompili

Comments

Marco Pompili (author) from Italy on January 10, 2021:

Dear Liz, it is a sad topic indeed. Thanks for your remarks.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 10, 2021:

This is a sad catalogue of disasters. Much has been learnt and changes made at the expense of many lives. You have put together a very well-structured, well-written and interesting article on this subject.