Mystery of BA jet and Russian fighters in near miss

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The Independent Online
British air safety investigators have a reputation of being among the finest in the world. However, says Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, in a report issued yesterday they have failed to explain why two Russian fighter aircraft and their refuelling plane narrowly missed crashing into a British Airways jet carrying 110 passengers this summer.

BA's Boeing 737 was heading towards Gatwick when it had to take avoiding action to miss three Russian military jets which had descended lower than their instructed course.

The BA aircraft - en route from Aberdeen - had to take a steeper than normal left turn and passed half a mile from the Russian aircraft. The incident occurred last July in clear skies over Reading in Berkshire.

The Russian formation team - consisting of two Sukhoi SU 30s and the Ilyushin IL 76 tanker aircraft - had been descending from 35,000ft on its approach to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire from Kalininggrad. When at 18,000ft, it started to drift, inexplicably downwards.

Then at 16,000ft, it started to descend again - despite being told to hold its position - and almost caused a catastrophe. Only the quick reactions of the controllers and the BA crew averted the disaster which saw the aircraft come within 600ft of each other.

The BA captain filed an report stating he estimated the ``miss distance'' as about 400ft vertically and 800m horizontally.

There are at least three explanations. One, that some equipment was faulty on the Russian tanker craft. It was the only jet in two-way communication with air traffic controllers. Two, the Russian pilots misunderstood an instruction in English. The report says the air traffic controllers had had difficulty communicating with the Russian aircraft, which were flying in formation on their way to an air show.

Another, more sinister theory, would be that the military pilots would not answer questions. This is unlikely as the Russian crew did co-operate enough to produce an accident report.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch said in its report that procedures for dealing with military formation flights in civil air space should now be tightened.

The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions refused to help. David Stewart, a spokesman, said: ``We are not going to ask any inspectors any questions on your behalf. If it is not in the report, we are not going to help.''

This attitude is unlikely to change. Safety agencies and regulatory bodies in Britain do not publish the evidence they receive because officials claim that otherwise their decisions could be questioned. This still leaves many unanswered questions in the case of the BA jet and the Russian flying team. What can be said is hundreds of lives were put in peril and the reason why is unknown.