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26 November 2014
On December 19 2010 a Raytheon (Hawker Beechcraft) 390 corporate jet, registered D-IAYL, crashed near St Moritz-Samedan Airport in Switzerland. Both pilots were killed.
The aircraft took off from Zagreb on a commercial flight under instrument flight rules with just the two pilots onboard. After an uneventful flight, the instrument flight rules flight plan was cancelled and the flight continued under visual flight rules for a daylight approach from Zernez (a village in the Upper Engadine Valley) to Runway 21 of Samedan Airport.
The weather reports suggested marginal visibility. While three other aircraft had completed succesful approaches and landings before the arrival of the D-IAYL aircraft, the crews of nine other aircraft who had planned to touch down in Samedan had either abandoned their approaches and diverted to other airports or not attempted to land at Samedan.
The crew of the D-IAYL aircraft began the approach down the Engadine Valley, passing through areas with greatly reduced visibility. The crew asked the flight information service officer about the weather at the airport. The offcier replied that visibility was "three or four kilometres, cloud base few at two thousand feet and overcast at five thousand or six thousand feet". After the accident, it was found that the actual weather at the airport and in the approach sector was probably worse.
The officer informed the crew that they could land at their own discretion. The crew continued their approach in a steep descent until 250 feet above ground level, when the aircraft was over the runway's threshold. The landing gear and flaps were extended.
The crew then initiated a climb to 600 feet above ground level. At the end of the runway, the speed was increased from 110 knots to 130 knots and a steep right turn was made onto the downwind leg. Abeam of the threshold of Runway 21, in front of an area with intensive snowfall, another steep turn direct to final approach was begun, during which the bank angle reached 62 degrees without any significant increase in airspeed. The aircraft stalled and crashed almost vertically. Both pilots suffered fatal injuries on impact.
The Swiss Accident Investigation Board found that the crew's improvised circuit had become so challenging due to the weather, topography and handling characteristics of the jet aircraft that it was no longer manageable.
The board identified the following two causes of the accident:(1)
Further factors were found to be that:
Following the accident, the father of the deceased co-pilot and an insurer brought claims for pain and suffering and damages against the operator of Samedan Airport, Engadin Airport AG.
The Federal Administrative Court dismissed the claims in two judgments on October 16 2014.(2) The court stated that it is an aircraft commander's duty to undertake all necessary measures to ensure the safe conduct and completion of the flight. The court pointed out that Samedan Airport is an uncontrolled airport(3) which may be used only under visual flight rules. When under visual flight rules, it is the pilot's responsibility to operate within the visibility and cloud clearances appropriate to the airspace in which the aircraft is flying.
At the time of the accident, the following Class G airspace requirements applied for a landing at Samedan Airport:
The court left undecided whether these requirements were met when the crew approached the airport. Nor did it decide whether the officer had passed any misleading weather information to the crew. According to the court, it was the aircraft commander's responsibility to ensure a safe approach and landing. If a safe approach and landing were no longer possible, the pilot should have performed a proper missed-approach manoeuvre and diverted to another airport. The court held that the pilot's failure to do so excluded any liability on the part of the airport's operator.
The aircraft commander occupies a special position within the framework of aviation law. The commander's first task concerns responsibility for the safe preparation, conduct and completion of the flight. Hence, the court's focus on the pilot's final authority and responsibility as to how the approach to Samedan Airport was conducted is unsurprising. It is also in line with an earlier decision concerning a helicopter accident at Grenchen Airport.(4)
However, the focus on the pilot's poor judgement may have prompted the court to jump to conclusions without considering another important aspect of the case. The legal regime in force at the time of the accident allowed pilots of fast corporate jets to make visual approaches and land at mountain airports such as Samedan in bad weather with low visibility. This regime entailed considerable risks and, in fact, a number of similar accidents in which low visibility played a crucial role occurred near Samedan Airport before December 19 2010. It is submitted that the question would have required careful analysis whether the airport operator had the authority and duty to mitigate the obvious risks by taking safety measures (eg, introducing higher visibility requirements for the approach) or closing the airport's runway, even if the visibility was not as low as 1.5km. The court did not consider this in any detail.
As a result of the accident, on December 23 2010 the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) introduced safety measures in relation to Samedan Airport and introduced the following requirements for corporate jets and other aircraft with an approach speed of between 91 knots and 120 knots:
FOCA stated that Samedan Airport's runway must be closed to the aircraft category concerned if these requirements are not met.
In addition, it was decided that all pilots must pass a familiarisation briefing and a specific test before flying to Samedan.
For further information on this topic please contact Andreas Fankhauser at Baumgartner Mächler by telephone (+41 44 215 4477), fax (+41 44 215 4479) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Baumgartner Mächler website can be accessed at www.bmlaw.ch.
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