Pilot and ATC Associations Call for Release of Russian Air Traffic Controllers

Controllers sentenced for their roles in 2014 business jet accident in Moscow.

air traffic control tower
Air traffic controllers found themselves imprisoned for negligence following the accident at a Moscow airport.Hans/Pixabay

A court in the Russian Federation recently handed down prison sentences of between five and six years to three air traffic controllers for their roles in an October 2014 accident at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport. The court said the controllers violated Russian safety rules for transportation by allowing a Falcon 50 to strike a snowplow during its takeoff roll. All four people aboard the French-registered jet died in the accident. The snowplow was driven by an airport employee who reportedly lost his situational awareness on the airport prior to the collision. One source claims the plow driver was drunk at the time of the accident. According to a July 2020 story that appeared in the Moscow Times, the plow driver and his boss “were sentenced in 2017 to four and three-and-a-half years in prison, but both were freed in an amnesty.”

While details about the 2014 accident itself are not very detailed, air traffic controllers generally are charged with ensuring they know the location of ground vehicles in relation to aircraft during poor weather. Visibility at the time of the late night departure from Moscow was reported to be about 1,000 feet in rain and fog. It is not at all unusual for controllers to be unable to see vehicles because of reduced visibilities that also hamper flight operations, and it is unclear whether ATC personnel in the tower that night saw the vehicles on their ground surveillance radar prior to the collision. Oddly, the Falcon pilots did report a vehicle crossing their runway prior to takeoff, but eventually continued the departure without any further questions.

This week, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations said about the convictions in a news release, “It is extremely detrimental to flight safety to criminally prosecute individuals involved in aviation accidents, as such prosecutions have the potential to seriously hinder our ability to learn from incidents and accidents so that future mishaps can be prevented. Pilots, controllers, and other aviation professionals who are directly or indirectly involved in aircraft incidents and accidents are encouraged to provide accurate and complete information to safety investigators so that related safety recommendations can be determined. However, many mistakes that could assist in the prevention of future accidents still go unreported because those involved believe they will not receive fair treatment and are fearful of punitive actions from employers, regulatory authorities, and courts.”

Both organizations called for the immediate release of the three controllers. The Global Air Traffic Control Alliance said, “The decision to impose imprisonment terms of between 5 and 6 years will do nothing to help aviation safety as it is without the principles of a just culture which is so key to ensuring the aviation community can learn from past incidents and accidents to prevent future ones.” Additionally, the GATCA said, “The three controllers from Moscow-Vnukovo have been sentenced for failing to prevent the accident at their airport even though the tools available to them at the time were not adequate for the task they needed to do. Instead they have been made scapegoats for the whole accident whilst the true reasons for the tragedy have been ignored. By doing so the Russian Federation has shown contempt for the safety culture principles set out by annexes 13 (aircraft accident and incident investigation) and 19 (safety management) to the Convention on International Civil Aviation.”

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