The ground dispatcher took a nap. The result was a disaster and 178 deaths

Flight 3352 of the Soviet state airline Aeroflot provided a connection between the cities of Krasnodar and Novosibirsk with a stopover in Omsk. That early morning of October 11, 1984, 170 passengers were on board the aircraft, including 24 children and a crew of nine.

It was a routine flight that was not meant to be exceptional. However, something has happened that is constantly feared by all air transport operators in the world. One particular mistake resulted in a series of other mistakes, which led to an inevitable catastrophe.

Rain during a stopover

The flight itself proceeded normally. The captain of the aircraft was an experienced forty-nine-year-old Boris Petrovich Stepanov, who had flown more than 16 thousand hours, of which 1846 hours just on Tupolevo Tu-154. The second pilot was forty-seven-year-old Anatoly Yachmenov, in addition to them there was also a navigator Yuri Blazin and flight engineer Vitaly Pronozin in the cockpit.

At Omsk Central Airport, where the plane was scheduled to make a stopover around half past five in the morning, a southeast wind blew at seven meters per second, in gusts of up to nine meters per second, which is a fairly fresh to fresh wind according to the Beaufort scale, but it’s not speed, which should significantly endanger a landing aircraft controlled by an experienced crew.

Visibility on the runway was about three thousand meters. It was raining and haze rose from the ground. The airport maintenance chief began to worry that the runway would be too slippery, and at 5:20 he asked air traffic control for permission to dry it.

His request was accepted by a tired ground dispatcher, who was only 23 years old Andrei Borodajenko, and he gave him this permit. And then he fell asleep directly on his work chair, forgetting to turn on the light warning: “Runway busy.”

He was not authorized to take such a step, a similar matter was subject to the approval of the chief air traffic controller Boris Ishalov, but he was not present at the time. Errors were starting to load.

However, the maintenance was given the green light to dry the runway, so it routinely sent three cars to the airfield. Two trucks equipped with snow blowers and air compressors to “blow” wet surfaces and one off-road UAZ with a trailer as an escort.

And there was another violation: according to the regulations in force, all cars were to flash warning lights throughout their stay on the track, but the turn signal lights were too sharp for maintenance workers to stab them in the eye. So they turned them off after the work started.

Unclear communication

It was six minutes past six in the morning. The crew of the arriving Tupolev informed the flight dispatcher Vasily Ogorodnikov, supervising the approach, that it was ready to land, but that there were some vague outlines on the runway. Later transcripts of the call retained the captain’s note, “What’s on that runway?”, To which the navigator responded, “Yeah, something’s on.”

Ogorodnikov checked that the warning that the runway was occupied was not on, but it was not lit for reasons already known. He did not see the track himself. He tried to contact Borodajenko’s ground dispatcher, but received no answer – Borodajenko was asleep (a later investigation showed that he had not slept a few nights before because he was caring for two small children).

So the dispatcher addressed another of his colleagues via internal radio and received an indistinct response ending in what sounded like “watery” – he thought he had heard the word “free”, which means “free”.

And another mistake followed – he was not satisfied with the vague answer and had to thoroughly check the condition of the track. But one person who could give him an exact answer fell asleep on duty, and another who could run to look and let him know in person was missing because the airport was struggling with a shortage of staff. So Ogorodnikov bet on vague words from the radio and allowed the landing.

Tupolev began the landing maneuver and, without deviating from the course, flew at a specified height around the guiding beacons.

At a height of one hundred meters, the captain of the aircraft turned on the landing lights, but the heavy rain created a light curtain from them, so the crew turned them off again. However, she reported to the air traffic controller that she could see the approach lights of the runway.

The maintenance workers, who were moving along the runway at that moment, noticed the landing plane and tried to contact the ground lights. But no one answered them, so they decided to ignore the plane. They thought it wasn’t on the final approach. The switch-off of the Tupolev landing lights, which could have convinced them that the plane was not sitting, could also have played a role.

At 5.38, Captain Stepanov flew at the minimum height at which he could interrupt the landing maneuver and begin a possible flight with the aircraft. At that moment, his final, loud verdict fell: “We’re sitting with it.”

Collision on the track

The plane turned on the headlights again and landed on the runway at a normal speed of 240 kilometers per hour. A second after the extended wheels touched the airport surface, the crew saw the cars standing in the landing lights. She immediately tried to turn the plane to the right, but it was too late.

At 5:39 the plane crashed into both trucks. Their oil tanks exploded, which contributed significantly to the terrible outcome of the disaster. The plane swelled sharply due to the impact and explosion, broke into two parts, the front part overturned and ignited. The cockpit and its crew flew past burning cars – which saved the pilots’ lives. A broken and burning plane stopped about 95 meters from the airport building.

The consequences of the accident were dire. The explosion of truck tanks created a huge wave of fire that swept through the fuselage and instantly burned all but one passenger. It did not help that the cockpit pilots who survived the collision, and even except for the co-pilot, were unharmed, immediately fled to the aid of passengers. Everything happened so fast that they didn’t have a chance to do anything.

In addition to the 174 people killed on the plane (169 passengers and five flight attendants), four other maintenance workers sat in cars and died immediately in the crash. The total number of casualties was 178 lives, making the accident the most fatal Tupolev Tu-154 accident in history. (Unfortunately, just nine months later, on July 10, 1985, this grim record was broken by the crash of Aeroflot Flight 7425, which killed 200 people.)

Only five people survived the truck crash on the plane – in addition to the men in the cockpit, the aforementioned passenger survived, not hit by a deadly wave of fire. A man sitting in a UAZ off-road vehicle in the passenger seat survived ground maintenance – his clothes started to burn, but he managed to put them out.

Investigations and penalties

The investigation concluded that the accident was caused by a chain of errors due to the negligence of air traffic controllers and non-compliance with the basic rules on airport maintenance and safety.

Borodajenko, a ground dispatcher, was found to be directly responsible. He fell asleep at work, did not respond to emergency inquiries with high importance, and also allowed service vehicles to enter the runway without marking it as occupied. The regional court in Omsk sentenced him to 15 years in prison for this. The unhappy young man accepted the sentence and, according to some sources, later committed suicide in prison.

Air traffic manager Boris Ishalov was also sentenced to 15 years, a dispatcher overseeing the approach of Vasily Ogorodnikov to 13 years and Mikhail Tokarev airport maintenance manager to 12 years. Everyone appealed, but to no avail. In 1988, however, one of the convicts was released prematurely, according to some sources

The crew of the plane was found completely innocent – the investigation showed that they acted in accordance with the regulations, tried to verify the condition on the runway and followed the instructions of the dispatcher during the landing. When she found out that she had an obstacle in front of her, she only had a few seconds to react. Still, she did her best to avert the collision.

A subsequent in-depth inspection of the Soviet air services showed that some of the safety violations that had occurred in this case were not uncommon. The disaster thus stood in place of several senior officials of the Soviet Air Force.

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