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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 Planes Nearly Collide Near Moscow

Two passenger jets carrying nearly 300 passengers came within seconds of a midair collision over the Moscow region, but a quick-thinking air traffic controller averted a tragedy, aviation officials said Thursday.

A pilot's failure to follow orders from air traffic controllers is suspected to be the reason for the near miss — professional negligence that one official said happens far too often in Russian airspace.

The incident occurred April 24 when a Boeing 767 carrying 200 passengers nearly hit a Tu-154 carrying 80 passengers shortly after they had taken off from different Moscow airports, said Alexander Povaly, deputy head of the Moscow Air Traffic Control Center.

A few minutes into flight, the Tu-154 began to descend without permission from air controllers near the town of Cherusti, 155 kilometers east of Moscow, directly into the path of the fast-approaching Boeing, which was flying below and behind it, Povaly told The Moscow Times.

The Tupolev had taken off from Vnukovo Airport southwest of Moscow on a flight to Samara. The Boeing had left Domodedovo Airport southeast of Moscow for Vladivostok.

The planes came within three to four kilometers of each other at the same altitude — a distance that can be covered in less than a minute — before an air traffic controller ordered the pilots to take evasive maneuvers, Povaly said.

Russian flight safety regulations require that planes maintain a distance of at least 10 kilometers from each other horizontally and 300 meters vertically if they are flying below 8,100 meters. The Tupolev was at 7,800 meters when it started descending, Povaly said.

The air controller ordered the Boeing to turn to the right and the Tupolev to turn to the left while simultaneously monitoring several other flights, Povaly said.

Yevgeny Lipatov, deputy head of the air control department at the Moscow Air Traffic Control Center, said both planes were flown by Russian airlines but refused to identify them, citing an ongoing investigation into the possible reasons for the Tupolev's unauthorized descent.

The Tu-154 crew has been barred from flying during the investigation, according to Rossiiskaya Gazeta, which first reported the incident Thursday.

Lipatov said pilots frequently fail to follow orders from air controllers, although it rarely creates the danger of a midair collision because planes don't often fly so close to each other.

Moscow air controllers prevented three major air crashes last year after pilots failed to follow orders, Lipatov said. He declined to elaborate.

Miroslav Boichuk, head of the Cockpit Personnel Association of Russia, a pilot trade union, dismissed the accusations that pilots ignore orders as "exaggerated." He conceded, though, that there were several such violations nationwide every year.

A pilot who fails to obey instructions can be stripped of his license.

Cases of near misses are rare. Moscow air traffic controllers have averted three to five collisions per year for the past five years, according to the Moscow Air Traffic Control Center, which is responsible for flights within a 500-kilometer radius of Moscow. The center did not have nationwide data, but it said Russia's statistics for near misses are similar to Europe's.

In one of the worst midair collisions in the past decade, a Bashkirian Airlines Tu-154 collided with a DHL cargo jet over southern Germany in July 2002, killing 71 people, mostly Russian schoolchildren on a vacation trip to Spain. An investigation found that the air traffic controller responsible for tracking the planes in German airspace had inadvertently given incorrect orders to the pilots.

The air traffic controller who averted the April 24 crash, Ilya Kurakulov, has been recommended for a state medal by the head of the Federal Air Navigation Agency, Alexander Neradko, Lipatov said.

Reached by telephone Thursday, Kurakulov was modest about the role he had played in averting certain disaster.

"As a rule, no one survives such crashes," he said, adding, "We air traffic controllers don't like to talk about such things. We are superstitious."