On 1st July 2002, Überlingen at Lake Constance (Bodensee) gain notoriety not only in Germany: two planes, a Tupolev TU-154M by Bashkirian Airways and a Boeing 757-23APF freight plane by DHL collided over the city in about 35,000 feet height. The crash lead to 71 deaths, 49 of them were children. It has been the most tragic plane accident in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. As the collision was that heavy, the wreckage of both planes spread over an area of some 40 square kilometers. There are multiple memorials reminding of that tragedy. I visited the two key ones.
Überlingen Plane Collision – How did it happen?
As the reasons leading to the collision are comparably complex, I generally recommend to read the corresponding wikipedia contents (German / English) or view one of the many available documentaries available on that topic, e.g. the one published by National Geographic or the Mayday documentary series.
The Tupolev Tu-154M, registration RA-85816, driven by charter Bashkirian Airlines flight 2937 was on a trip from Moscow Domodedovo to Barcelona Airport. It majorly held school kids from Ufa, who were awarded with the travel due to extraordinary school and arts performances. The flight was delayed by some days due to visa problems. The second airplane, A9C-DHL, a Boeing 757-23APF freight plane by DHL (flight 611) was en route from Manama, Bahrain, to Belgium and had a stopover at Bergamo Airport.
The collision happened due to several factors. Some of them were:
The only air traffic controller on duty, Peter Nielsen, was distracted by another airplane surprisingly requesting landing permission at Friedrichshafen Airport. Another ATC was taking a break.
Due to maintenance, several systems at Skyguide Zurich, who are responsible for that sector of air space, were not operating properly, including the phone line and the Short Term Collision Alert STCA.
The collision warning system TCAS (Traffic Alert and Colision Avoidance System) gave clear instructions to both planes, which would have avoided the crash. Nielsen, however, gave contradicting orders to the Bashkirian Airlines plane. The cockpit of BTC 2937 followed the ATC instructions, in line with their flight manual, but in contrast to European regulations at that time.
Death of Peter Nielsen
Vitaly Kaloyev, who lost his wife and two children in the accident, knifed Peter Nielsen on 24th February 2004, at his home. Kalojev was finally sentenced to a five year and three months of imprisonment. After being released from prison, Kalojev went home and has been appointed deputy minister of construction of North Ossetia-Alania. The region also awarded him with the highest regional medal To the Glory of Ossetia. Being treated as a hero in his home country lead to very negative receptions in Switzerland. Like Kaloyev, Nielsen had a wife and two children.
Überlingen Plane Collision Memorials – Locations
There are two main memorials in the area. The key one is at Überlingen-Brachenreuthe, where the fuselage wreck of the Tupolev has been found. The other place I visited is near Taisersdorf, where the DHL Boeing crashed to the ground. I marked both places in the map below.
There is another memorial at the Swiss Skyguide flight control and of course in Ufa. In addition one pearl of the pearl necklace memorial is located on another spot of the Brachenreuthe Forest. I could unfortunately not spot it, even with some help of the locals (see below).
Brücke nach Ufa Association
Caused by this tragedy, people from the Überlingen region founded the Brücke nach Ufa (“Bridge To Ufa”) charity association, which is caring about the memorial and especially supporting activities like student exchanges between the two region. You can find their website here (German and Russian only). Right after my visit on 2nd June 2020, they opened a showcase at the Brachenreuthe Memorial.
Überlingen – Brachenreuthe Memorial
The memorial at Überlingen – Brachenreuthe can likely be seen as the main German memorial of the plane accident. You can find it comparably easily by leaving the B31n national route. If you head North, you more or less already see the metal pearls on the hill. The signage is comparably small, though.
It also hosted all major memorial services. Right at the location where the Tupolev fuselage crashed, there are memorial plates in German and Russian, commemorating what happened on that night and also listing all victims of the disaster. Trees have been planted to memorize the victims as well.
The most significant part of the memorial, however, is definitely the Zerrissene Perlenkette (ripped pearl necklace). It is also reminding of Vitaly Kaloyev, who was one of the first relatives arriving in Überlingen after the crash – and even though advised not to do so, he searched for his children and wife and really found the her daughter in a quite unscathed state as well as her ripped necklace on her own. The first pearls you see are still connected, but then the wire is broken. It is a very impressive monument created by German artist Andrea Zaumseil.
Finding the Owingen-Taisersdorf memorial, where the Boeing freight plane hit the ground, is a bit more tricky. There is a small sign on the left side of the road, when you head North from Happenmühle to Taisersdorf. There is no parking lot or similar, but there is sufficient space right on the side of the road. The memorial is just a few steps away.
The most significant thing you see is a small clearing which is still caused by the plane wreck cutting down all trees while crashing. When you head down the small hill, you see a memorial plate for the two DHL pilots on the left hand side. On the right hand side, you see another of the metal pearls. The memorial still seems to receive some care by the locals, as there were, for example, fresh flowers.
Remaining Necklace Pearls
As you can see on the website of artist Andrea Zaumseil (German only), there is another pearl in the forest around Brachenreuthe. As I did not have any map where the position of this pearl is documented, I unfortunately could not visit the location.
There was also the plan to bring some of the pearls to Ufa. However, this plan has never been turned into reality.