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Kerala Air India crash was a disaster waiting to happen, say experts, point to runway

The runway in Kozhikode is of the 'tabletop' kind — carved out of hills, such runways are surrounded by deep valleys, which means there’s no room for even the slightest slip-up.

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Bengaluru: The Air India Express crash in Kozhikode Friday evening was an accident waiting to happen, say aviation experts. 

With over 180 passengers aboard, the plane overshot the runway as it attempted to land amid torrential rain in Kozhikode. The runway is of the “tabletop” kind — carved out of hills, such runways are surrounded by deep valleys, which means there’s no room for even the slightest slip-up. Adding to the precariousness of the landing was the fact that the runway was slick with rainwater, robbing the brakes of crucial traction.

The landing is believed to have taken place amid tailwind conditions — when the wind is blowing in the same direction as the aircraft — which would have resulted in a higher speed on touchdown, making the whole operation even more risky.

Experts say they have been highlighting the risk posed by tabletop runways for a decade, since the 2010 Air India Express crash at Mangaluru, which left 158 people dead. They suggest that operations on such runways be preceded by rigorous training that employs simulations on conditions such as heavy rain.

The Air India Express flight that crashed Friday was being helmed by an experienced commander, Deepak Sathe, who joined civil aviation after a career in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and had 27 landings on the runway under his belt. He was accompanied by Captain Akhilesh Kumar. Both of them were among the 18 people who died in the crash.

Also Read: Air India Express crash in Kerala is flag carrier’s deadliest tragedy since 2010

‘Unsafe for landing’

Captain Mohan Ranganathan, a former member of the Union Civil Aviation Ministry’s safety advisory committee, said he had warned the government nine years ago that the Karipur runway at Kozhikode was unfit and unsafe for landing.

He made the suggestion in a letter dated 17 June 2011, a year after the Mangaluru crash.

“All the flights that land on tailwind conditions in rain are endangering the lives of all onboard,” said the letter, which was addressed to the then chairman of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee (CASAC), Dr Nazim Zaidi, and former Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA, civil aviation regulator) chief Bharat Bhushan .

“The Air India Express accident in Mangalore should have alerted AAI to make the runway (Karipur) conditions safe. It is a dangerous situation, especially in wet conditions,” it added. “Runway 10 (the runway where Friday’s accident happened) approaches should not be permitted in view of the lack of Runway End Safety Area (RESA) and the terrain beyond the end of the runway,” it further stated.

RESA and runway strips are stretches — extending beyond the runways in width and length — that offer aircraft some legroom for a safe landing even if the ideal length is overshot, or if they skid.

Speaking to ThePrint, Bhushan said he tried to extend the runway during his tenure, but faced a lot of local opposition in land acquisition.

“The buffer zone at the end of the runway was extended to 240 metres with an additional 60-metre ‘strip’ giving the pilot a total of 300 metres,” he added.

Also Read: Job loss, marriage, health problems — why many of those on flight IX 1344 were coming home

‘A special child’

The Karipur runway is one of at least five tabletop runways in India, the others being in Mangaluru (Karnataka), Lengpui (Mizoram), Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) and Pakyong (Sikkim).

“Kozhikode airport, like other such tabletop airports, should be treated like a ‘special child,” Bhushan said. “It requires special handling in terms of operation, maintenance and every other aspect. There are specialised standard operating procedures governing the operation of such airports,” he added. 

Bhushan said the runway at Kozhikode is “constricted”, with a length of about 2,700 metres (for comparison, India’s longest runway, in Delhi, measures 4,430 metres). During rain, he added, aircraft require a longer runway than during dry weather.

“There should be special simulation and training for pilots who operate in such sectors,” he said.

The two pilots of the Dubai-Kozhikode Air India flight reportedly aborted a landing attempt before making a second bid. The plane then overshot the runway and fell into a gorge over 50 metres deep and broke into two. Luckily, it didn’t catch fire, or the number of fatalities may have been far higher. 

“When you are landing in the monsoon, you are going to do so with tailwind. Landing on a wet runway in Calicut with tailwind is just not right. Several aircraft have managed to stop right at the end of the runway. It is a huge risk and nobody has followed it up despite my report and warnings,” said Ranganathan.

Captain S.S. Panesar, former director for flight safety and training with the now-defunct Indian Airlines, said the pilots should have been warned about waterlogging on the runway.

“Why did the ATC (air traffic control) not warn the pilot of waterlogging on the runway?” he said. He described the pilot as “very experienced”, but added that he should have known in his second attempt to land that the water film on the runway would reduce the brake effect.

“We want a judicial probe with independent aviation experts like us involved. That way, the pilots can be told what should not be done based on observations. Idea of the investigation should be to ensure such incidents do not recur,” he said.

Ranganathan added that “some heads must roll or else we will see no improvement on the ground”.

ThePrint reached DGCA chief Arun Kumar through messages for comments on this report, but received no response. Phone calls made went unanswered.

This report has been updated to reflect the correct number of tabletop runways in India

Also Read: Deepak Sathe, pilot of crashed AI plane, would’ve ensured minimum fatalities, says IAF mate


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  1. “The airport opened on 13 April 1988. It was the eleventh-busiest airport in India in terms of overall passenger traffic. It is the third-busiest airport in Kerala after Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. It was given international airport status on 2 February 2006. It is the only airport in the state with a tabletop runway. It is a focus airport for Air India, Indigo and Spicejet.”
    Reading this article, I am reminded of an economist who was standing by the poolside looking up at a swimmer about to jump down into an empty swimming pool from the 10m board above. The economist ever so softly whispered “Hey, there is no water in the pool”. The swimmer of course could not hear it and he jumped. The economist went to the press about his “warning” Let us cut this crap about “I told you so” or drawing attention to it. If feasible go to town with it persistently much before the tragedies.

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