Srilankan Airlines (UL 504) Near Miss Over Turkey – Some Aeronautical Thoughts

 If the UL captain had climbed to the requested height, the aircraft would have faced a mid-on collision with the British Airways aircraft which was flying at a faster speed than the UL flight.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal 

“Flying the airplane is more important than radioing your plight to a person on the ground incapable of understanding it.”

A mid air collision is by far the worst nightmare in aviation. As reported by Daily Mirror (Online)  of 15 June 2022 this possibility nearly transcended from the surreal to the real when SriLankan Airlines Flight 504 operating from London to Colombo nearly missed banging into a British Airways Flight operating at an altitude of 35,000 feet. The terrible tragedy in the making was avoided due to a combination of vigilance, competence, astuteness, and integrity of the flight crew of UL 504.  For this the 275 passengers on board must be deeply grateful.

UL Flight

According to Daily Mirror : “Sources familiar with the incident said that the flight carrying 275 passengers on board and a crew, had entered the Turkish Airspace of Ankara after leaving Heathrow en route to Colombo when Ankara air control informed the UL pilot to climb to 35,000 feet from the 33,000 feet they were flying at. The UL pilot and crew who had been vigilant had detected a British Airways flight just 15 miles away from them flying at 35,000 feet and informed the air traffic control at Ankara that there was a flight already above…[A]fter checking, the Ankara air traffic control had informed the UL Captain that they had not detected any flight at 35,000 feet on their radar and the UL flight was cleared to climb. The pilot who by that time had detected the British Airways flight on the flight’s radar had not climbed and informed the Ankara air traffic control once again to check. It was only minutes later that the air traffic had responded urgently informing the UL flight not to climb as there was already a flight right above at 35,000 feet.

If the UL captain had climbed to the requested height, the aircraft would have faced a mid-on collision with the British Airways aircraft which was flying at a faster speed than the UL flight. Upon landing at the BIA the passengers safely disembarked from the flight along with the crew but a report on the incident was filed”.

Air Traffic Control

It is  curious that the Ankara air traffic control center was unable to see the British Airways aircraft on their radar (particularly after the UL captain had advised the former) and consequently took the risk of directing the UL aircraft to climb up to the altitude occupied by the British airways aircraft.  The Aircraft Incident Report filed on arrival in Colombo by the UL crew indicates that the crew did not execute the climb as advised by air traffic control as the TCAS on the aircraft had indicated the presence of the British Airways aircraft at 35,000 feet travelling at a speed greater than the UL aircraft.

Article 28 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) – the constitutional treaty of international civil aviation – places a legal obligation on the State over which an aircraft operates to inter alia to undertake, so far as it may find practicable, to: provide, in its territory, airports, radio services, meteorological services and other air navigation facilities to facilitate international air navigation, in accordance with the standards and practices recommended or established from time to time, pursuant to the Convention; and adopt and put into operation the appropriate standard systems of communications procedure, codes, markings, signals, lighting and other operational practices and rules which may be recommended or established from time to time. Although it must be noted that this is not an absolute obligation as the State is called upon to provide such services only in so far as it finds practicable to do so, this qualifier does not apply to basic element of air navigation services such as the one provided by Turkish air traffic control in this instance.

Standard 3.7.1.1 of Annex 11 (Air Traffic Services) to the Chicago Convention provides that an air traffic control clearance must indicate: aircraft identification as shown in the flight plan; clearance limit; route of flight; level(s) of flight for the entire route or part thereof and changes of levels if required. The Turkish Air Traffic Control Centre is known to be one of the most efficient in the world (and reputed to be the best in Europe) and provides air traffic services to all aircraft over Turkish Airspace. This makes it all the more surprising that it had taken an unnecessary risk regarding the clearance of the UL aircraft to a higher altitude.  Air traffic controllers have a duty to exercise ordinary care in the exercise of their duties. They have a duty to warn pilots of hazards and not ignore possible hazards.

SriLankan Airlines Flight Crew

The UL flight crew had displayed excellent airmanship and control of the flight. Standard 4.5.1 of Annex 6 (Operation of Aircraft) to the Chicago Convention provides that the pilot-in-command is responsible for the safety of all crew members, passengers, and cargo on board when the doors are closed. The pilot-in-command must also be responsible for the operation and safety of the aircraft from the moment it is ready to move for the purpose of taking off until the moment it finally comes to rest at the end of the flight and the engine(s) used as primary propulsion units are shut down.

It is incontrovertible that the pilot in command of the SriLankan Airlines flight showed good airmanship which is defined by (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Associations) – AOPA as “…exercising good command. As pilot in command, you are the captain of your ship. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re the captain of a Cessna 152 or a Boeing 777; your command authority is the same. As PIC, you are directly responsible for, and the final authority regarding, the safe operation of your aircraft. In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, you may deviate from any general operating or flight rule to the extent required to meet that emergency”.

Had the pilot in command of UL 504  wavered and taken the risk of not being circumspect and safety conscious in this instance, any hint of negligence on the part of the pilot, whether resulting in an incident or an accident, would have ascribed to the pilot the highest standard of gross negligence, which is attributed  to other categories of persons such as surgeons, bus drivers and ships’ captains who take charge of persons whose safety they claim they can assure by dint of the special competence they profess to have.

The Statement issued by SriLankan Airlines that “Contrary to news reports, SriLankan confirms that UL 504 was not at risk of a mid-air collision with another aircraft at any point. The vigilance of the pilots and the state-of-the-art communication & surveillance system onboard the aircraft enabled safe passage for UL 504” is incorrect in the first sentence but factual in the second.  The aircraft was certainly at risk. It was the clever humans in the cockpit and he communications and surveillance system that saved the persons on board.  The pilot in command had followed the golden rule in a dangerous situation in flight : “aviate; navigate; communicate… always remember you fly an airplane with your head, not your hands.”  A good landing is one you walk away from.

Dr. Abeyratne is the author of Air Navigation Law (Springer: 2012).

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