Investigating the cause of the biggest military aircraft disaster in Slovakia's history
January 19th 2006 will be a dark date in Slovak history. A military plane traveling from Pristina in Kosovo to the Slovak city of Kosice crashed just near the Slovak-Hungarian border, claiming the lives of 42 Slovaks. They were members of a NATO peacekeeping mission. It was the most serious air crash in Slovakia's history and investigators have recently recovered the aircraft's flight recorder.
A siren marks the beginning of a 24-hour period of national mourning. All state institutions lowered their flags to half-mast and theatres, cinemas, television and radio changed their programs. A week after the tragic accident the nation said its last farewell to the 42 people who died, at a large military ceremony. Thousands of people gathered at Presov's sports hall to pay their respects. Defense Minister Juraj Liska:
"I will always remember the pride on your faces and the resolve with which you address this challenge."
NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was also at the farewell ceremony:
"Today is a very, very sad day for all of us. We all lost, through this terrible accident, men and women who did their duty in the name of peace and progress, who were protecting other people's lives and who paid the ultimate price in doing so."
The crashed aircraft was carrying 28 soldiers returning home as part of a troop rotation, plus seven rotation-support staff and eight crew members. Of the 43 people on board only one, almost miraculously, survived. A special commission has been set up to investigate the causes of the accident.
According to Slovak Air Force Chief, Juraj Baranek: "the AN-24 military plane did not stray from its flight path, although it did begin its descent earlier than usual". In Slovakia speculation has been rife about the cause of the crash. It is a matter of time before the black box will reveal whether it was bad weather, human or technical failure that led to the tragedy.
Questions are already being asked about the safety of the plane. The Antonov AN-24, was built in Ukraine in 1969. Similar aircraft are no longer in operation in the Czech Republic and Hungary. Various specialists and ex-pilots have told the press that the planes were old and should have been replaced. Defense ministry spokesman, Milan Vanga, disagrees:
"30 years old for an aircraft, especially a military plane, is not very high, because Army aircraft undergo regular repairs that prolong their life by 5 years. These planes offer maximum safety to the passengers and cargo."
However the defense ministry spokesman confirmed to us that they have been planning to replace the Anton-24 aircraft with new machines:
"In the future we were planning to replace the aircraft - not because of safety or their age, but to react to current trends worldwide, where major tenders for modern aircraft are under way. But several armies, including NATO members, still regularly use the AN-24."
The modernisation of the Antonov aircraft began in 2001. Currently Slovakia has 3 further AN-24 aircraft in operation, although they have been grounded until the cause of the crash is determined. According to the latest information, the AN-24 was not equipped with a device that would have indicated it was getting too close to the the ground. The defense ministry says that such devices are not prescribed by law.
Rather than wait for political criticism or the findings of the black box, Defense Minister Juraj Liska resigned from his post last Friday, just a day after the last farewell to the 42 members of the peacekeeping mission. Some call it a pre-election tactic, others a morally mature gesture and a sign of a more cultivated political atmosphere in Slovakia. Whichever it may be, one thing is for sure. There was a tragic irony in the January 19th disaster. Having survived a difficult peace-keeping mission, 42 men and women died on their way home.