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‘I’m surprised nothing’s happened yet’: How planes in Germany are flying dangerously close to each other

Aircraft are repeatedly flying too close to each other in German airspace and increasing the chance of collisions, a new report has found.

'I'm surprised nothing's happened yet': How planes in Germany are flying dangerously close to each other
A flight taking off from Munich Airport. Photo: DPA

In the past four years, there have been more than 170 “potentially dangerous approaches by aircraft”, according to the Federal Office for Aircraft Accident Investigation (BFU) and reported by German broadcaster NDR on Tuesday. 

The majority of these alarming incidents came from collision warning systems, which ask commercial pilots to change course immediately when a risk is detected.

In other cases, dangerous approaches and near-collisions were observed by pilots who weren't warned beforehand.

According to NDR, aviation experts believe the total figures are even higher because reports are also received by other authorities responsible for aviation. There's also a considerable number of unreported incidents.

The reasons for dangerous approaches are manifold: there are more planes in the sky and collision warning systems belonging to large and small aircraft are incompatible. Plus there's a lack of radio technology among private pilots, but also commercial pilots who, due to time pressure, take shortcuts through airspaces shared with glider pilots.

These close calls occur repeatedly in the so-called mixed airspace, a zone used by large and small aircraft, in the wider vicinity of commercial airports.

READ ALSO: Trains instead of planes: Could domestic flights in Germany really become 'obsolute'?

'Suddenly the large lettering “Lufthansa” appeared'

In 2018, for example, in North Rhine-Westphalia alone there were at least eight cases of approaches between commercial aircraft and gliders in the vicinity of the Weeze and Paderborn airports in which passenger planes had to move to avoid a collision.

Meanwhile, on July 23rd this year in Schleswig-Holstein, south of Lübeck, an Airbus A321 from Lufthansa and a glider missed each other by only a few metres.

“Suddenly the large lettering 'Lufthansa' appeared next to me at a distance of about 40 to 60 metres,” Anne-Sophie Polz, the glider pilot said as she described the encounter with the 175-seat aircraft approaching Hamburg Airport.

A preliminary investigation report by the BFU found both the glider pilot and the Lufthansa pilot were allowed to be in the airspace concerned. However, both planes had apparently not been able to detect each other due to different warning systems.

Photo: DPA

Due to a lack of technical equipment, the glider could neither be detected by the Lufthansa aircraft nor by the air traffic controller on the radar. A Lufthansa spokesman said the firm was supporting the investigation into the incident but did not comment further.

Increase in air traffic

Christoph Strümpfel of the Institute of Aerospace at TU Berlin said the increase in air traffic was an important factor and called for stricter rules.

“German airspace is one of the most frequented airspaces in Europe,” he said.

Felix Gottwald of the Cockpit Association said the danger of a collision happening between a passenger aircraft and a smaller aircraft is realistic.

“I am surprised that nothing has happened yet, because we have enough reports where it's been very close, where aircraft just happened to fly past each other.

“That could have been a crash. So it's just a question of when something like that happens and not whether.”

Most aviation experts take a critical view of an obligation demanded by the BFU two years ago to equip all aircraft with so-called transponders – transmitters that broadcast the position and course of an aircraft.

At the beginning of 2019, German air navigation services (DFS) carried out a simulation and found this would lead to an overload of radio frequencies and could harm flight safety.

Germany's Transport Ministry told NDR that it was currently investigating the issues with the help of experts. A spokesperson said: “As part of flight safety work, the relevant points for possible action are being identified and considered.”

Vocabulary

Airspace – (der) Luftraum

Approaches – (die) Annäherungen

Aviation experts – (die) Luftfahrtexperten

Commercial aircraft (der) Verkehrsflugzeug

Glider – (der) Segelflieger

We're aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

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IN IMAGES: Spain’s ‘scrap cathedral’ lives on after creator’s death

For over 60 years, former monk Justo Gallego almost single-handedly built a cathedral out of scrap materials on the outskirts of Madrid. Here is a picture-based ode to his remarkable labour of love.

IN IMAGES: Spain's 'scrap cathedral' lives on after creator's death
File photo taken on August 3, 1999 shows Justo Gallego Martinez, then 73, posing in front of his cathedral. Photo: ERIC CABANIS / AFP

The 96-year-old died over the weekend, but left the unfinished complex in Mejorada del Campo to a charity run by a priest that has vowed to complete his labour of love.

Gallego began the project in 1961 when he was in his mid-30s on land inherited from his family after a bout of tuberculosis forced him to leave an order of Trappist monks.

Today, the “Cathedral of Justo” features a crypt, two cloisters and 12 towers spread over 4,700 square metres (50,600 square feet), although the central dome still does not have a cover.

He used bricks, wood and other material scavenged from old building sites, as well as through donations that began to arrive once the project became better known.

A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The building’s pillars are made from stacked oil drums while windows have been cobbled and glued together from shards of coloured glass.

“Recycling is fashionable now, but he used it 60 years ago when nobody talked about it,” said Juan Carlos Arroyo, an engineer and architect with engineering firm Calter.

Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid.
Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid. Photo: (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The charity that is taking over the project, “Messengers of Peace”, hired the firm to assess the structural soundness of the building, which lacks a permit.

No blueprint

“The structure has withstood significant weather events throughout its construction,” Arroyo told AFP, predicting it will only need some “small surgical interventions”.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster visited the site in 2009 — when he came to Spain to collect a prize — telling Gallego that he should be the one getting the award, Arroyo added.

Religious murals on a walls of Justo's cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Religious murals on a walls of Justo’s cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The sturdiness of the project is surprising given that Gallego had no formal training as a builder, and he worked without a blueprint.

In interviews, he repeatedly said that the details for the cathedral were “in his head” and “it all comes from above”.

Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The complex stands in a street called Avenida Antoni Gaudi, named after the architect behind Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia basilica which has been under construction since 1883.

But unlike the Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Justo Gallego as it is known is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as a place of worship.

Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral's completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral’s completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

‘Worth visiting’

Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, the maverick priest who heads Messengers of Peace, wants to turn Gallego’s building into an inclusive space for all faiths and one that is used to help the poor.

“There are already too many cathedrals and too many churches, that sometimes lack people,” he said.

“It will not be a typical cathedral, but a social centre where people can come to pray or if they are facing difficulties,” he added.

A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

Father Angel is famous in Spain for running a restaurant offering meals to the homeless and for running a church in central Madrid where pets are welcome and the faithful can confess via iPad.

Inside the Cathedral of Justo, volunteers continued working on the structure while a steady stream of visitors walked around the grounds admiring the building in the nondescript suburb.

“If the means are put in, especially materials and money, to finish it, then it will be a very beautiful place of worship,” said Ramon Calvo, 74, who was visiting the grounds with friends.

FIND OUT MORE: How to get to Justo’s Cathedral and more amazing images

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