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14 May, 2009 22:57

A disaster that never happened

In April, a deadly aircraft incident involving about 300 passengers was prevented seconds before a collision could take place, Russia's Federal Air Navigation Service (Rosavianavigatsia) revealed on Wednesday.

The near-catastrophic encounter between a Tu-154 bound for Samara and a Boeing 767 en route to Vladivostok happened near Moscow on April 24, Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper reports.

Each and every day, over a million passengers worldwide put their lives in the hands of people they may never meet – people whose split-second decisions can save their lives.

Thousands of airplanes take to the skies daily and the safety of each flight is guaranteed not only by pilots but also by a team of dispatch engineers on the ground.

Ilya Kurakulov, 39, has 17 years experience in air traffic control and his lightning reaction stopped two planes that were just 300m away from a disaster.

“I had my eye on both planes, because they were too close to each other. And both of the pilots must have heard the gravity in my voice – they immediately did exactly what I told them to,” Ilya says.

A Tupolev-154 and a Boeing 767 both took off during Ilya's shift.

But their ascent almost turned into catastrophe when the landing gear on the Tupolev failed to retract – and the plane started losing both speed and height.

At the same time, the Boeing beneath it continued to climb at full throttle.

At speeds of over 600 kilometres per hour the planes would have collided mid-air within 15 seconds.

Only an urgent order to the Boeing crew to steer right saved hundreds of people.

“I was very scared but I reacted quickly. The whole episode was over in 30 seconds or so…but it seemed like so much longer. In all my time at the ATC center, this was a first case – but I’m just really glad I handled it right, and everyone is safe,” Kurakulov says.

Ilya has become a hero overnight. His wife and colleagues are proud of him, and strangers have flooded his internet page with messages of gratitude.

But despite all the attention, he calmly carries on with his job. His superiors, however, want his abilities to be officially recognized and congratulated, the head of Rosavianavigatsia Aleksandr Neradko told journalists.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the dangerous actions of the Tu-154 crew is under way. They are all barred from flying until the probe is over. The pilot’s license may be revoked if he is found guilty of negligence.

The Moscow Air Traffic Control center is responsible for 200 planes at any one time, and services over 600,000 flights per year.

It's the largest in Russia – and one of the largest in the world.

“Our ATC center covers a space that’s larger than France and BeNeLux put together, or Spain together with Portugal. We have nearly a thousand air traffic controllers, working in shifts. It’s a tough job – but all our staff do it incredibly well,” the center’s director Vladimir Ushakov says.

The job of an air traffic controller is to save lives and keep the crowded skies safe – but the risks are always there.

In 2002, problems at Swiss Air Traffic Control meant the supervisor was too late to warn two pilots they were on a collision course, causing their planes to slam into each other above the Alps.

The Russian TU-154, mostly with teenagers on board, collided with a DHL cargo plane. No one survived.

The air traffic controller himself was later stabbed to death by a relative of one of the victims, who had lost his entire family in the crash.

But with disaster having been averted in the skies near Moscow, one usually anonymous Air Traffic Controller is now getting the praise he deserves, from thousands of thankful strangers.