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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Never Rush to Jump to Conclusions

A chartered plane from Bashkortostan collides with a Boeing flown by DHL in airspace controlled by Switzerland. Bashkortostan -- DHL -- Switzerland. Which would you first suspect to be the weakest link?

So when Swiss air traffic controllers called a news conference Tuesday morning in the first waking hours after the crash and said the Russian pilot had ignored the first two instructions to change course, it seemed more than likely that we were looking at yet another screw-up in Russian aviation.

Maybe the pilot didn't speak English and didn't understand the instructions. Maybe he was unqualified.

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But as it turns out, the pilot, according to his airline, was highly experienced and spoke English, a claim backed up by Austrian air traffic controllers who spoke to him earlier in the flight.

It is the Swiss air traffic controllers whose competence, and honesty, is looking downright shaky.

First they said the Tu-154 pilot was given a two-minute warning that he was on a collision course, but they changed their story when challenged by German investigators and admitted the pilot had been alerted only 50 seconds before the crash. Fifty seconds!

Then we learn that an automatic system designed to alert Swiss traffic controllers when planes are on a collision course was off at the time -- it was shut down for maintenance (how Soviet can you get?) -- and the air traffic controller in charge was working alone while his partner took a break.

Officials at Skyguide, the Swiss air traffic control company, gave conflicting accounts Wednesday on whether the rules allow for having one person on duty when the automatic warning system is not working. But common sense says they should not.

If the lone air traffic controller contacted the Tupolev pilot with so little time to spare, did he even attempt to contact the Boeing pilot? There has been no word yet that he did.

It was 25 seconds before the crash that the Russian plane responded to the warning and nose-dived. It was only after that that the Boeing descended, its pilot alerted by an on-board collision avoidance system, which tracks nearby planes and issues voice recommendations for how to avoid them.

The two maneuvers merely put the planes back on a collision course.

Patrick Herr, a spokesman for Swiss air traffic control, told The Washington Post that there are two mysteries. "Firstly, why the Tupolev pilot didn't react straight away. And secondly, why the automatic warning system of the Boeing also gave a descent order."

The bigger mystery is why the air traffic control system failed to do its job.