Exactly 21 years ago today, on November 24, 2001, Crossair Flight 3597 crashed into a hill near Zurich, Switzerland killing 24 of the 33 people onboard. Crossair Flight 3597 was a 410-mile-long flight from Berlin Tegel Airport (TXL) in Germany to Zurich Airport (ZRH) in Switzerland.
The aircraft operating the flight was a five-year-old British-manufactured Avro 146-RJ100 registered HB-IMX. Before the crash, the plane had logged 13,000 flying hours with 11,500 takeoffs and landings. The Avro RJ100 was a high-winged four-engine jet derived from the BAe 146, an aircraft designed to take off and land from short runways. Regarded as an exceptionally quiet plane, Swiss carrier Crossair was the largest operator of the Avro RJ100, with 16 aircraft in its fleet.
The First Officer had more hours on the Avro RJ100 than the Captain
In command of Crossair Flight 3597 was 57-year-old Captain Hans Ulrich Lutz, a seasoned pilot with close to 20,000 flight hours. Assisting the captain was 25-year-old First Officer Stefan Löhrer, who was fresh out of training with just 500 hours under his belt. A curiosity was that Captain Lutz had just recently started to fly the RJ100, which meant that the first officer had more experience flying the type.
The pair were accompanied by three flight attendants and 28 passengers for the short hop down to Zurich. There was supposed to be a group of 21 tourists on the flight, but they never showed up, leaving the 97-seat plane two-thirds empty. With the captain the pilot in command, the plane took off from Berlin 21 minutes behind schedule at 21:01 local time.
The runway for landing was changed at the last minute
Half an hour into the flight, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) captured Captain Lutz, giving his first officer a long and unnecessary lecture about interpreting runway reports. A few moments later, the first officer got his own back by telling Lutz that he had let his speed get too high, forcing the captain to ease back on the throttle.
As the flight entered Zurich airspace about an hour after taking off from Berlin, Captain Lutz prepared to land on Zurich’s runway 14. Unbeknownst to the pilots, Germany and Switzerland had recently agreed to a noise abatement policy that prohibited flights from landing on Runway 14 after 22:00. Zurich air traffic control informed the plane that they would be landing on Runway 28. After having been told of the change of runway Captain Lutz became frustrated, but out loud, he said, “OK, that’s fine.”
With poor visibility due to low cloud, a previous Crossair flight reported that they could not see the runway until they were two miles out. At 21:58, the plane was cleared for landing on Runway 28 and turned to make its final approach. As they descended, the lights of a village became visible, prompting the captain to say he had the ground in sight.
Now losing altitude at a rate of 1,200 feet per minute, the plane was still well short of the runway. Despite not being able to see the runway, Captain Lutz continued his descent below the glide path, crashing into a hillside near the village of Bassersdorf, two and a half miles short of the airport. As the plane broke up and caught fire, only two flight attendants and seven passengers were able to escape from the wreckage.
The investigation into Crossair Flight 3597
Not long after the crash, the Swiss Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) determined that it was a controlled flight into terrain. The accident was caused by a series of pilot errors and navigation mistakes that had put the plane off course. The report also noted that Captain Lutz had failed to follow correct landing and navigation procedures on previous flights. Despite this, Crossair continued to let him fly even though he had nearly crashed while trying to land at Lugano Airport (LUG).