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Monday, April 12, 2021

Could the Kerala plane crash have been averted?

The recent plane crash at the Kozhikode Calicut International Airport in Karipur, Kerala that killed 18 people including both the pilots and injured numerous others has left us with a number of questions. Was it because it was a tabletop airport and the pilots should have been more cautious? A lot of experts have blamed the type of airport, some have blamed pilots’ judgement while some have also claimed that we should have learnt something from our past. The most important among all this is the one question — Could the Kerala plane crash have been averted?


Was the DGCA not concerned?

Several safety experts have stated that the Air India Express crash on August 7 could have easily been averted had the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) properly followed its own regulations after a very similar accident earlier involving another Air India Express flight at the Mangalore airport 10 years ago in May 2010. “It was an accident waiting to happen,” aviation safety experts quipped. DGCA had stated last week that it was raining cats and dogs in Kozhikode when the pilots of the Air India Express Boeing 737 plane arriving from Dubai tried to land on the tabletop airport. The flight was actually scheduled to land on Runway 28, but as the pilots couldn’t see clearly they made it land on the opposite Runway 10. The runway that they finally landed on is said to have had tailwinds on that day due to the incessant rainfall. Aviation experts have said that those tailwinds must have been strong enough to increase the speed of the flight to an extent where it skidded off the runway just inches before falling into the valley below. The flight broke into two pieces, however, the flight catching fire was avoided due to the pilots’ vigilance. “Tabletop airports per se are not dangerous. Where and how it goes wrong depends on how you use it and how the regulator monitors it. I have written multiple times to DGCA about Kozhikode airport and there is a case pending at the Kerala High Court about the airport since 2016,” pointed out Yeshwant Shenoy, a lawyer and aviation safety activist, as told to the National Herald. “In aviation, everything is terminology. No airport in the world is termed critical; only the DGCA uses the term. DGCA is a regulator, not a media house to declare names for airports. It is supposed to regulate,” Shenoy added. After the deadly crash in Mangalore a decade ago, the DGCA was smart enough to declare 11 airports as critical or tricky, the list included Kozhikode where the recent accident took place. The other airports are Port Blair, Leh, Shimla, Kullu, Jammu, Agartala, Latur, Patna, Lengpui and Mangalore. The DGCA needs to take stock of the airport situation in Kozhikode and also take strict decisions rather than giving out temporary declarations for the place to run.
“The Calicut airport is not safe for widebody aircrafts such as Boeing 777 or Airbus 330 or Boeing 747, so they changed the classification of the airport to permit widebody aircraft. This is illegal and completely wrong. It was pointed out and in 2015, DGCA stopped the operation of wide-body aircraft to Kozhikode,” explained Mohan Ranganathan, a civil aviation safety expert.


Was the runway faulty?

Ranganathan who is a civil aviation expert told the Hindustan Times in an interview that the crash could have been well avoided. “The warnings were ignored… in my opinion, it is not an accident but a murder. Their own audits have had flagged safety issues” Ranganathan said. He spoke about how tabletop runways need a lot more safety precautions and why it was not a great idea to land the plane in such harsh weather conditions.“There’s a drop of around 70 metres at the end of the runway at the Kozhikode airport, in the case of Mangalore it is about 100 metres. There’s no escape for an aircraft if it overruns. You will find another major accident either in Patna or Jammu airport. Both of them are dangerous airfields and don’t have safety features” he explained.

Surprisingly Ranganathan was the one who wrote a letter almost 10 years ago, to the chairman of Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC) and civil aviation secretary about Kozhikode airport’s Runway 10 and the dangers of landing during harsh wind flow and rains. “I understand that Runway 10 ILS is being used on a trial basis at Calicut. Some of the crew are accepting even VOR approach on Runway 10. The reason is the lower minima than Runway 28. However, all the flights that land on Runway 10 in tailwind conditions in rain, are endangering the lives of all on board,” he had said. “The runway strip is just half the minimum width laid down in ICAO Annex 14. This fact was known to the DGCA team that has been conducting inspections and safety assessments during the past several years. Have they considered the danger involved? Has the DGCA or the airlines laid down any operational restrictions or special procedures?” he had written in the letter earlier.


The pilots saved lives

Some aviation experts are of the opinion that the pilots could have simply diverted the flight to any nearby airport thus avoiding such a dangerous situation. The weather wasn’t most definitely in their favour and the tailwinds, a tabletop runway added to the misery. Kozhikode’s Runway 10 is said to be 2,700 metres long while as reported, the aircraft touched down approximately 1,000 metres from the beginning of the Runway 10 on August 7, as per the Airport Authority of India. Captain S S Panesar, former director of flight safety and training at the Indian Airlines thinks that the pilot should have diverted the flight immediately to one of the nearby airports such as Thiruvananthapuram or Bengaluru for safety reasons, following his unsuccessful first attempt to land on the runway. The pilot was said to have been using the instrument landing system (ILS) to land in the first attempt. Radio beams are used by the ILS to provide pilots with vertical and horizontal guidance while they are trying to land the plane. “The authorities have found the DFDR (digital flight data recorder) and CVR (cockpit voice recorder), but one thing will remain unanswered, that why didn’t he divert?” Mr Panesar asked.

Alas! We will never know which one of the above reasons could have maybe averted the crash or was it due to technical difficulty of some sort that we do not know yet about? Well, an investigation into the crash might take us somewhere fruitful until then we could only hope that the numerous injured families recover soon.

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