The findings of the two Serbian army commissions on the responsibility for the tragic helicopter crash are now available to the public and have already caused strong reactions. Undoubtedly, their most controversial conclusion is that the helicopter crew is responsible for the crash, i.e. that the direct cause of the accident was human error, including the alcohol involved. Even if this finding was true (I am not qualified to judge this), and even if the members of the two commissions have done their job professionally and free from any political influence (which, of course, are two pretty big assumptions), careful reading of both reports shows us that several serious mistakes made by the helicopter crew’s superiors, including the minister of defense, preceded the crash.
We can’t expect technical commissions comprised exclusively of soldiers, like these two, to make brave findings. And we certainly can’t expect them to make findings on the political and moral responsibility of their superior, minister Gasic. The minister may not be responsible for the direct cause of the helicopter crash. But, I think that his responsibility is evident: (1) for the decision to even implement this rescue operation in highly unfavorable weather conditions, and (2) for the decision to land the helicopter on Nikola Tesla airport, where the accident happened, and not on the Military medical academy helipad. The minister’s political responsibility becomes evident as soon as you compare his statements from immediately after the accident with the commissions’ reports.
For example, minister Gasic’s interview in TV Pink’s morning show on March 15th. You can find the news with the minister’s statements from the show here, and the entire show here. Three statements made by the minister during that show are particularly striking.
First, the recording shows Mr. Gasic saying the following at 4:35: „Naturally, the Serbian army is a regulated system with prescribed procedures“.
The commissions’ reports clearly show that those procedures weren’t followed: see the report from 18/03/2015 (hereafter referred to as the first report), page 10, saying that „there were certain omissions in the implementation of prescribed procedures… there are elements of responsibility of the military organization in preparation and implementation of the tasks“ of the rescue crew, although they didn’t directly cause the accident (which doesn’t mean that they didn’t indirectly influence it). Also, according to the report from 31/03/2015 (hereafter referred to as the second report), page 4:
„The secondary cause of the crash is a series of omissions in planning, organization and management of the flight, because the abilities and training of the crew, weather conditions, the aircraft’s capabilities under the given conditions and secure landing point weren’t in accordance with the decision to undertake such a complex assignment, or with the regulations, rules, procedures and orders regulating the flying and utilization of forces for emergency response“.
The key here is to note that minister Gasic was completely aware that the relevant procedures weren’t followed, despite his statement after the accident. The minister himself had skipped the regular military chain of command and directly called the commander of the search and rescue unit and ordered him to go ahead with the rescue of the baby. Page 2 of the second report clearly says that: „General Bandic called the minister of defense at 19:56 and told him that technical conditions for the mission are fulfilled and informed him that the standard operative procedure (SOP) for the utilization of S&R forces for the third mission assignment has not been followed. The minister of defense responded that it is urgent and that the mission is to be implemented“. (emphasis mine)
Second, regarding the weather conditions for a safe helicopter flight, the recording of TV Pink’s show shows the minister, at 6:30, saying: „Naturally, according to my information, weather conditions at the moment were completely favorable“.
In contrast to that, the commissions’ reports show that not only were the weather conditions not completely favorable at the moment of the beginning of the operation, but they didn’t even fulfill minimal conditions for a safe flight – see page 10 of the first report: „Weather conditions… at the time of S&R engagement and the planned time of landing were under the meteorological minimum for cloudiness, and even under the meteorological minimum for visibility at 22:30“. Furthermore, the commission explained (on page 5) that there are no normative documents prescribing the possibility of implementing the mission in conditions below the minimum threshold. Despite that, somebody approved the rescue mission.
Finally, regarding Nikola Tesla airport as the planned landing point instead of available alternatives, the minister first said that the pilots „chose the safest airport at that moment“ (8:05 of the recording). Later, he said that the decision to land at Nikola Tesla airport was „made by the flight control and the pilot himself“ (11:00 of the recording), that the pilot could have landed elsewhere if he wanted to, and that he had tried to land at Nikola Tesla airport three times, although he had alternatives (11:30 of the recording). At the end, to avoid any confusion, the minister repeated that the pilots „had a choice“ (11:55 of the recording).
Pages 2-3 of the second report of the commission say something completely different:
„Crew leader reports to AKL Ladjevci that he has taken off and he’s continuing the flight towards MMA at 1800m at QNH pressure. As instructed by AKL Ladjevci, the crew switches to working with Approach Belgrade. After reporting to Approach Belgrade, the crew is told that the control expects them to land at Nikola Tesla airport. The crew answers that their destination is MMA. They are told that their landing point is Nikola Tesla airport, but the crew still insists to land at MMA and asks for data on weather situation. After receiving the information, the crew says that the visibility will make it hard for them to land at Banjicki Vis (MMA) and that they wish to land at Batajnica airport, according to ILS, and fly over to Banjicki Vis afterwards. The control tells them to continue towards Belgrade. The crew says again that they are continuing directly towards Banjicki Vis and that they will perform visual landing, if the conditions allow, and, if not, follow ILS towards Batajnica airport and, later on, continue visually to Banjicki Vis. Flight control tells the crew that the arrival of the baby is organized at Nikola Tesla airport. The crew confirms and asks for instruction for landing at Nikola Tesla airport“.
The pilots had no choice here – they were ordered to land at Nikola Tesla airport. Pages 8-9 of the first report clearly show that the decision to land at the airport wasn’t made by the flight control at their own accordance, but: „During the flight of the aircraft towards Belgrade, the ODT PViPVO commander assessed the development of the meteorological situation and, after consultation with Predrag Bandic, concluded that the helicopter should land at Nikola Tesla airport instead of MMA helipad“. We don’t know whether general Bandic communicated with the minister about this. But we do know the final conclusion of the second report (page 4): „Also, during the entire process of decision making and flight, all participants in the process of implementation of the mission are under the pressure and expectations of the urgency of provision of medical help to the child, which was particularly reflected in the choice of the final landing destination.“ (emphasis mine)
In a nutshell, the commissions’ reports contradict minister Gasic’s statements about the accident in at least three aspects: (1) following prescribed procedures; (2) decision on implementation of rescue mission despite extremely unfavorable weather conditions; (3) decision to land at Nikola Tesla airport, which was definitely not made by the pilots. There are only a couple of possible explanations for these contradictions: either minister Gasic knowingly deceived the public in order to hide his own responsibility for the tragedy, or the minister was deliberately and systematically mislead by his subordinates, or the minister is so incompetent that he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Either way, his behavior is such that, in any normal country, he would have already offered his resignation or he would’ve been asked to resign. But, naturally, it’s been a long time since Serbia was a normal country.
The author is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham Law School
Translated by Marijana Simic