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Swiss Air Force Pilot and Controller on Trial for F/A-18 Tragedy

  • By The Swiss Times
  • 4 January 2024

Trial Begins for 2016 F/A-18 Crash in Susten Pass.

Swiss Air Force Pilot and Controller on Trial for F/A-18 Tragedy

Today, a pivotal military court case begins, scrutinizing a tragic incident from 2016 involving an air traffic controller from Skyguide and a Swiss Air Force pilot. Both stand accused of negligent homicide in relation to the fatal crash of an F/A-18 on the Susten Pass in Muttenz BL.

Charges and Accusations

The Swiss military justice system, on April 3, outlined multiple charges against the individuals, including failure to adhere to service regulations, disruption of public traffic, and negligent handling of equipment. Importantly, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Circumstances of the Crash

The accident unfolded on August 29, 2016, during a routine combat training session. A two-man F/A-18 patrol was involved, with a 27-year-old military pilot fatally crashing into a rock face. The aircraft and its critical flight data recorder, or “black box,” were completely destroyed, leaving investigators without key data.

The patrol originated from Meiringen BE military airfield. Poor visibility led the ill-fated pilot, following his leader, to depend on radar guidance. However, a radar lock failure – potentially due to a procedural lapse by the leader – ensued.

Critical Error in Flight Altitude Instruction

Seeking guidance, the less experienced pilot contacted the Meiringen air traffic controller. Here, a fatal error occurred: the controller advised a flight altitude of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), applicable for westerly take-offs. The correct minimum altitude for their eastward route was 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). Just 58 seconds following this advice, the pilot crashed at 3,319 meters, narrowly below the ridge line.

Aftermath and Controller’s Realization

The Skyguide employee quickly realized his mistake, but it was too late. He had already directed the pilot to switch communication to the Dübendorf air traffic control, precluding any chance of correcting the error.

Military Court Proceedings

The proceedings of Military Court 2 in Muttenz, beginning today, are set to span four days, with a verdict expected on January 9. This case brings into sharp focus the critical nature of accurate communication and adherence to procedures in aviation safety.

©Keystone/SDA

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