Two strangers’ lives become inextricably bound together after a devastating plane crash. Inspired by actual events, AFTERMATH tells a story of guilt and revenge after an air traffic controller’s (Scoot McNairy) error causes the death of a construction foreman’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) wife and daughter.
This movie is based on the real life events that took place on July 1, 2002 when a Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937, a Tupolev Tu-154 jet collided with DHL Flight 611, a Boeing 757 over a southern German town. A total of 71 people were killed during this collision.
The official investigation of the accident was conducted by the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation (German: Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung, (BFU)) identified as the main cause of the collision a number of shortcomings on the part of the Swiss air traffic control service in charge of the sector involved, and also ambiguities in the procedures regarding the use of TCAS, the on-board aircraft collision avoidance system.
Two years after the crash, Peter Nielsen, the air traffic controller on duty at the time of the collision, was murdered in an apparent act of revenge by Vitaly Kaloyev, a Russian citizen who had lost his wife and two children in the accident.
The two aircraft were flying at flight level 360 (36,000 feet, 10,973 m) on a collision course. Despite being just inside the German border, the airspace was controlled from Zürich, Switzerland, by the private Swiss airspace control company Skyguide. The only air traffic controller handling the airspace, Peter Nielsen, was working two workstations at the same time. He did not realize the problem in time and thus failed to keep the aircraft at a safe distance from each other. Only less than a minute before the accident did he realize the danger and contacted Flight 2937, instructing the pilot to descend by a thousand feet to avoid collision with crossing traffic (Flight 611). Seconds after the Russian crew initiated the descent, however, their traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) instructed them to climb, while at about the same time the TCAS on Flight 611 instructed the pilots of that aircraft to descend. Had both aircraft followed those automated instructions, the collision would not have occurred.
Flight 611’s pilots on the Boeing jet followed the TCAS instructions and initiated a descent, but could not immediately inform Nielsen because the controller was dealing with Flight 2937. About eight seconds before the collision, Flight 611’s descent rate was about 2,400 feet per minute (12 m/s), not as rapid as the 2,500 to 3,000 ft/min (13 to 15 m/s) range advised by TCAS. Having already commenced his descent, as instructed by the controller, the pilot on the Tupolev disregarded the TCAS instruction to climb, thus both planes were now descending.
Unaware of the TCAS-issued alerts, Nielsen repeated his instruction to Flight 2937 to descend, giving the Tupolev crew incorrect information as to the position of the DHL plane (telling them that the Boeing was to the right of the Tupolev when it was in fact to the left).
The aircraft collided at 21:35:32, at almost a right angle at an altitude of 34,890 feet (10,630 m), with the Boeing’s vertical stabilizer slicing completely through Flight 2937’s fuselage just ahead of the Tupolev’s wings. The Tupolev broke into several pieces, scattering wreckage over a wide area. The nose section of the aircraft fell vertically, while the tail section with the engines continued, stalled, and fell. The crippled Boeing, now with 80% of its vertical stabilizer lost, struggled for a further seven kilometres (four miles) before crashing into a wooded area close to the village of Taisersdorf at a 70-degree downward angle. Each engine ended up several hundred metres away from the main wreckage, and the tail section was torn from the fuselage by trees just before impact. All 69 people on the Tupolev, and the two on board the Boeing, died.
Factors in the Crash
Only one air traffic controller, Peter Nielsen of ACC Zurich, was controlling the airspace through which the aircraft were flying. The other controller on duty was resting in another room for the night. This was against the regulations,[vague] but had been a common practice for years and was known and tolerated by management. Maintenance work was being carried out on the main radar image processing system, which meant that the controllers were forced to use a fallback system. The ground-based optical collision warning system, which would have alerted the controller to the pending collision approximately 2½ minutes before it happened, had been switched off for maintenance; Nielsen was unaware of this. There still was an aural STCA warning system, which released a warning addressed to workstation RE SUED at 21:35:00 (32 seconds before the collision); this warning was not heard by anyone present at that time, although no error in this system could be found in a subsequent technical audit; whether this audible warning is turned on or not, is not logged technically. Even if Nielsen had heard this warning, at that time finding a useful resolution order by the air traffic controller is impossible.
Nielsen needed medical attention due to traumatic stress caused by the accident. At Skyguide, his former colleagues maintained a vase with a white rose over Nielsen’s former workstation. Skyguide, after initially having blamed the Russian pilot for the accident, accepted full responsibility and asked relatives of the victims for forgiveness.
On 27 July 2006, a court in Konstanz decided that the Federal Republic of Germany should pay compensation to Bashkirian Airlines. The court found that Germany was legally responsible for the actions of Skyguide. The government appealed the ruling; however, in the autumn of 2013 Bashkirian Airlines and the Federal Republic of Germany reached a tacit agreement, ending the court case before a decision on the legal issues was reached.
In another case before the court in Konstanz, Skyguide’s liability insurance is suing Bashkirian Airlines for 2.5 million euro in damages. The case was opened in March 2008; the legal questions are expected to be difficult, as the airline has filed for bankruptcy under Russian law.
A criminal investigation of Skyguide began in May 2004. On 7 August 2006, a Swiss prosecutor filed manslaughter charges against eight employees of Skyguide. The prosecutor called for prison terms of up to 15 months if found guilty. The verdict was announced in September 2007. Three of the four managers convicted were given suspended prison terms and the fourth was ordered to pay a fine. Another four employees of the Skyguide firm were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Murder of Peter Nielsen
Devastated by the loss of his wife and two children aboard flight 2937, Vitaly Kaloyev, a Russian architect, held Peter Nielsen responsible for their deaths. He tracked down and stabbed Nielsen to death at his home in Kloten, near Zürich, on 24 February 2004. The Swiss police arrested Kaloyev at a local motel shortly after, and he was sentenced to prison for the murder in 2005. He was released in November 2007 because his mental condition was not sufficiently considered in the initial sentence. After his release, Kaloyev was dubbed a hero in North Ossetia. In January 2008, he was appointed deputy construction minister of North Ossetia.
National Geographic Documentary about the crash