An investigative team probing the collision of two passenger planes in January has recommended the installation of a ground radar as well as vision and infrared cameras on the runway to help air traffic controllers with their instructions to pilots.

The Bureau of Air Accident Investigation (BAAI) found that the distance between the air traffic control tower and the place where the collision took place was almost two kilometres, leading air traffic controllers to have limited visibility.

This problem is compounded when dark and when weather conditions are poor.

The incident happened at 8pm on January 17 when the wing tip of a Ryanair plane that was taxiing to stand at Malta Airport scraped the tail of a Turkish Airlines aircraft. None of the passengers on board were injured.

Ryanair’s Boeing 737 had landed while the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 was bound for Istanbul.

The investigation found that the impact between the wing tip of the Ryanair aircraft and the tail stabiliser of the Turkish Airlines aircraft resulted in minor damage.

Both aircraft were under the instructions of Malta Air Traffic Control at the time. The pilot of the Ryanair aircraft was not aware that he had hit anything with the wing tip. 

Despite air traffic control instructions, it remains the pilots’ ultimate responsibility to ensure the safety of the aircraft.

Focusing on the wing tip detracts attention from the pilot’s main visual ahead

The Bureau of Air Accident Investigation concluded that the incident probably took place because the Turkish Airlines aircraft was around 22 metres away from its designated holding position when the Ryanair aircraft was given instructions to proceed to taxi on the taxiway.

According to the air traffic control transcript, the flight crew thought the aircraft was only three metres away from the correct holding position.

Investigations revealed that the flight crew on the Ryanair aircraft had expressed concern about the position of the other aircraft but had proceeded with the taxiing.

Penned by chief investigator of air accidents, Captain Frank Zammit, the report noted that the air traffic controllers relied on the plane’s reported positions and that there was no way to ascertain that this was correct.

It said this was not the first incident involving a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, following those at Seville airport in April 2012 and at Dublin airport in October 2014 and April 2015.

The investigation noted that the wing tip is barely visible from the pilot’s seated position and that focusing on the wing tip detracts attention from the pilot’s main visual ahead.

It said that previous accident reports concluded that the human’s ability to gauge distance accurately is limited to about 10 metres when the wing tip is approximately 27 metres from the pilot’ position in the flight-deck.

It noted that navigation lights are on the bottom side of the wing tip, making it even more difficult for the pilot to gauge the proper distance.

In fact, it recommended that the aircraft manufacturer considers placing the navigation lights at the tip of the wing tip.

The bureau also recommended that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency reassesses the need for mandatory wing tip proximity warnings together with additional pilot and anti-collision aids on the ground.