The Soviet school, the drugs, the English: so death came on the routine flight

Investigations to ascertain the causes of a plane crash they are always difficult. Many factors at play, a lot of uncertainty, few tools. One of the most delicate investigations in the history of civil aviation was certainly the one to establish the dynamics of the tragedy Crossair flight 498passenger flight departing from Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Dresden, Germany, crashed two minutes after takeoff in the municipality of Niederhasli on January 10, 2000. Seven passengers and three crew members were on board the Saab 340B turboprop, all of whom died.

The drama of the Crossair 498

The misfortune of the Crossair 498 was the first in the history of the Swiss regional airline Crossair, born twenty-five years earlier and specialized in short journeys from one city to another. The one from Zurich to Dresden used to be one of the most popular flights among business travellers. The plane was a Saab 340B, a Swedish-made model, equipped with a digital autopilot, capable of piloting with great precision. An easy vehicle to maneuver and for this reason much loved by pilots.

Two Eastern European pilots in the cabin: the crew consisted of the Moldovan Commander Pavel Gruzin41, by the Slovak First Officer Rastislav Kolesár, 35, and a French flight attendant. Great experience and excellent reliability. Yet something went wrong: just two minutes after take-off and an attempted left turn, the plane quickly fell. A terrible explosion, followed by other small explosions. Rescue is useless: no survivors, a catastrophic scenario.

The investigations

Few, very few fragments of the plane that can be examined, black boxes to be traced and few witnesses. Uphill road for Swiss investigators, immediately at work to reconstruct the exact dynamics of the facts. The deep crater confirmed a fast fall, with an almost vertical inclination. Shortly before the crash, the controllers gave the go-ahead for a left turn towards East Zurich, a shortcut to shorten the journey by a few minutes. A habit, nothing strange.

Instead of banking to the left, the aircraft banked to the right. Every attempt by the commander is in vain. Investigators immediately examined the tower’s communications and radar traces, an investigation which ended in nothing. The authorities therefore decided to evaluate possible mechanical failures or manufacturing defects. Immediately ruled out possible pre-crash fires, engine damage and malfunctioning flaps.

Another lead carefully evaluated by the investigators was the one linked to the possible interference of a mobile phone. To dispel any doubts, the printouts: the data showed that incoming and outgoing calls ended before takeoff. No phone calls during the two minutes in flight, another lead to discard.

The turning point

A first breakthrough in the investigation came almost by accident, thanks to the pilot’s hand luggage Pavel Gruzin. Gods were found inside drugs, specifically a powerful sedative used to treat anxiety disorders. The authorities investigated the matter and it was discovered that the man resorted to tranquilizers to manage the suffering due to the distance from his loved ones, who remained in Moldova. Was that what compromised his lucidity? No, or at least not only, according to the cabin recorder: nothing unusual, normal behaviour, calm and calm voice.

The second breakthrough came thanks to a trip by detectives in Soviet Union, training ground for the two pilots. There, in fact, the pilots learned to fly with an artificial horizon that was very different from the one used in the West. In the West the symbol in the center which represented the plane remains stationary, while the background moved. Diametrically opposite speech in the Soviet Union: a left turn on a Soviet display was very similar to a right turn on a Western display. To this must be added the possible communication problems – the two spoke very basic English, not sufficient in the phases of danger – and a computerized aircraft navigation system that is difficult to understand for the less accustomed.

Post-tragedy countermeasures

The crash of the Crossair 498 prompted the authorities to take several steps countermeasures. The company added three months of training for pilots from the former Soviet bloc, complete with an exam in English. In addition, all crews of the Swiss were forced to enter the automatic pilot immediately after take-off, which is far from customary for pilots trained in the Soviet Union, including the two who died in the tragedy almost 23 years ago.

The Soviet school, the drugs, the English: so death came on the routine flight