As investigators look into the causes for the crash of an Air India Express plane flight coming from Dubai at Kozhikode on Friday evening, preliminary information indicates poor weather conditions and a possible late touchdown as possible factors. Early inputs from the airport and air traffic control officials indicate the aircraft touched down way beyond where it should have on the runway. A senior Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) official said it landed beyond the 3,000-feet mark, when it should have ideally done so no further than the 500-feet mark. Officials are examining whether poor visibility due to heavy rainfall was the reason.
The death toll is now up to 18, including four children. Twenty-two others, who were on the flight that had 190 people on board, are serious. All the 18 dead have been identified, with nine of them belonging to Kozhikode alone, Malappuram District Collector K Gopalakrishnan said. Twenty-three people have been discharged after medical assistance.
Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, who visited the crash site on Saturday, criticised “speculation” over the reasons behind the crash. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the cause or come to any conclusion,” he said, adding that they would go through the Digital Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder that had been retrieved.
According to information sourced from flight tracking portal Flightradar24, after coming in from over the Arabian Sea, the aircraft crossed the airport at about 6,000 feet while dropping 1,000 feet every minute, then made a loop around, after which it attempted a landing from the east end of the runway. An air traffic control personnel told The Indian Express that at the first attempt, the pilot reported visibility issues and, after coming down to about 2,000 feet, decided to try landing again. The second attempt though was made from the west end of the runway — not the preferred landing direction.
The DGCA official said that in this bid, the aircraft landed much further than it should have, ending up using one-third of the available landing distance. It would have left the pilots not enough chance to stop the plane for any emergency. A senior Airports Authority of India (AAI) official said the wet condition of the runway due to the rain could have made it even more difficult for the crew to bring the plane to a halt in time. Rain leaves a layer of water over the runway, resulting in fall in friction coefficient. However, it is yet to be determined whether the conditions at Kozhikode’s runway on Friday evening were worse than what would be considered safety limits.
With the fact that the Kozhikode airport is a table-top airport coming under scrutiny, Puri said such airports are not uncommon. “It is true they pose some challenges to the pilot… We can wait for the outcome of the probe.”
The minister added, “The aircraft was being captained by one of our most experienced and distinguished commanders, Deepak Sathe. He had landed on this airfield as many as 27 times, including this year. The probe will also look into human error, if any. The weather condition was very bad and the aircraft skidded.”
The flight IX-1344 was operated as part of the government’s Vande Bharat evacuation mission. About lessons from the Mangaluru airport tragedy from 10 years ago, in almost the same circumstances, Puri said it was too early to make the comparison given how long back that had happened.
Typically, every flight has an alternative airport as destination, for emergencies, with enough fuel stocked for the same. In the case of the Dubai-Kozhikode flight, Tiruchirappally in Tamil Nadu was the designated alternative airport, 45 minutes from the Kozhikode airport, the DGCA official said.
The official added that they were lucky there was no fire, usually seen in such crashes, despite the plane having fuel for at least another 45 minutes of flight. The plane that had crashed at Mangaluru had burst into flames, killing 158 on board. “Had there been a fire, the number of casualties would have been much higher,” the official said.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who visited the site, said 149 people were being treated in various hospitals in Kozhikode and Malappuram, with the condition of 22 serious. One of the dead tested positive for Covid-19, complicating medical efforts.
Pinarayi praised government departments and the local public for their rescue efforts. The first responders were the airport staff and volunteers, who rushed to help despite the airport region being in a Covid containment zone.
Fire and Rescue Department divisional officer Abdul Rasheed said they had done several drills to prepare for precisely a situation arising out of the Kozhikode airport’s location. He said it was their sheer luck that there was no fire, despite the plane fuel mixing with the rain water to create a large area of slick.
Saithalaivi K C, a member of the local Pallikkal panchayat, said, “When the news reached us, we did not think about the virus. We did not wait for ambulances, instead flagged down whatever vehicles passed by to shift the injured.”
Kerala Health Minister K K Shailaja has asked all those engaged in rescue operations to go into self-quarantine and get themselves tested.
Both the state and Centre have announced Rs 10 lakh each to the families of the deceased. Pinarayi said the state would bear the cost of treatment of the injured.