Milan controllers may face manslaughter rap

 - October 3, 2007, 9:51 AM

The Italian investigation into the October 8 collision between a Cessna CJ2 and an MD-87 on the main runway of Milan Linate Airport is now focusing on the failure of the ground traffic radar and allegations of misleading airport signs. The city’s chief public prosecutor, Geraldo D’Ambrosio, has warned seven airport and ATC officials that they are under investigation for charges of manslaughter and “culpable disaster” for alleged negligence in association with the accident, which killed all 114 people on both aircraft, as well as four airport workers.

The CJ2 was owned by German steel magnate Dieter Eschmann, who had leant it to Cessna for a demonstration flight to Paris for a potential purchaser, Luca Fossini of the Italian food group Star. Fossini was killed in the crash, along with Cessna European salesman Stefano Romanello and the aircraft’s German pilots, Horst Koenigsmann and Martin Schneider.

In foggy conditions at around 8:20 a.m. on October 8, the Scandinavian Airline System MD-87 was on its takeoff roll close to V1 speed when the Citation entered the runway. After striking the Citation, the airliner crashed into a baggage handling building, killing all 104 passengers aboard, its six crew and four airport workers.

Bureaucratic Hitches
It has been confirmed that Linate’s ground traffic radar had been switched off since October 5. According to air traffic controllers, the equipment had been faulty for the past two years. A new system had been delivered but, reportedly due to bureaucratic hitches, had not been fully installed and commissioned. For the past three years the controllers’ union has been lobbying to have ground radar installed at all Italian airports.

The controllers have complained that they have been obliged to rely on aircrew accurately reporting the position of their aircraft on the ground. The prosecutor has already reviewed the conversation–in English–between the German pilots and Italian controllers. The transcript of this tape shows that the pilots believed they were on taxiway R5 (as instructed by the controllers), when in fact they were on taxiway R6.

Investigators have also discovered that taxiways at Linate still had out-of-date tarmac markings that may have confused the Citation pilots. Reportedly, the only vertical sign at the entrance to the main runway was, according to the prosecutor’s office, “small, concealed by grass and not in conformity with regulations.”

The prosecutor’s office has said that the Citation crew must have gone through two stop lights while taxiing onto the runway. It is now trying to determine whether these lights would have been sufficiently visible.

The accident occurred in thick fog, with visibility reduced to around 650 ft. The Milan region is often shrouded in fog during the fall and winter.

Linate Airport is close to downtown Milan and is generally preferred by business aircraft operators to the city’s much more remote Malpensa Airport. Controversially, Italian authorities have been seeking to force all airlines–apart from the state-owned Alitalia–to switch all operations to Malpensa.