Distraught Father Assassinates Controller (Lake Constance, 2002)

The controller issued last-minute instructions to ensure the two aircraft did not collide, but with collision possible, TCAS in the aircraft gave its own perhaps more appropriate orders. One pilot obeyed, and the other followed the controller with disastrous results.

Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937/DHL Flight 611, July 1, 2002

One evening a middle-aged stranger came to the suburban residence near Switzerland’s Zurich Airport where that air traffic controller, Danish-born Peter Nielsen, lived. (He had recently returned from medical leave to assume other duties at Skyguide, the Swiss air traffic control company.) After a brief exchange of words at the front door, the unknown visitor proceeded to stab Nielsen to death in full view of his wife.

A senior police officer soon dismissed the notion that it had been a hit man, saying, “Hit men don’t get emotional and they don’t use a knife.” Soon it was realized that the middle-aged man must have been the father of one or more of the many children killed 623 days earlier in a midair collision over Lake Constance, lying between Switzerland and Germany and touched at its foot by Austria. Many could sympathize but not condone.

The terrible collision had occurred at 35,400 feet in a virtually empty sky at 23:35 local time on July 1, 2002 and had been between a Tupolev-154 airliner with sixty-nine people, including fifty-two children, on board and a DHL cargo plane with just two pilots. Everyone on the two aircraft lost their lives. Among the dead were the wife, son, and daughter of forty-eight-year old Viktor Kaloyev. Those who knew Kaloyev said he had been implacably distraught since losing everything he had to live for, and, indeed, it was he who murdered Nielsen.

A court subsequently sent Kaloyev to a psychiatric hospital. However, was his act of vengeance misplaced? Was he right to focus on the air traffic controller? As is usual in an air accident, a whole series of unfortunate events and failures, on their own of little consequence, led to the midair collision for which Viktor Kaloyev held Nielsen responsible.