Tuesday, July 18, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

51 die in Patna plane crash
4 killed on ground: Judicial probe ordered 

PATNA, July 17 (PTI, UNI) — In a major aviation disaster in recent times, an Alliance Air Boeing-737 crashed today minutes before it was to land at Patna airport, killing 51 persons, while seven passengers had a miraculous escape.

The flight, CD-7412, from Calcutta to Delhi via Patna and Lucknow with 58 persons, including six crew, on board was hovering over the airport but suddenly lost height and grazed a neem tree before ploughing into a row of government residential houses and burst into flames.

While 51 passengers, including the crew, were killed on the spot, four persons on the ground died in the house collapse. Three women, two children and all six crew, including three women, were among those killed.

Those who survived the crash are Pramod Rajgarhia and Ketan Rajgarhia (both women) and Prachi Rajgarhia (child), Rajiv Singh Rana, P.N. Bopanna and Bharat Rungta.

The plane belonging to the Indian Airlines subsidiary took off from Calcutta at 6.50 a.m. and crashed on a building when it was just 2 km from the airport at 7.30 a.m.

Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav, who rushed here, told newsmen that the black box of the 20-year-old plane had been recovered and the communication between air traffic control (ATC) of Patna airport and the pilot, Capt Sohanpal before the crash had been traced.

Seven survivors and some residents injured in the crash were admitted to Patna Medical College Hospital where the condition of some was stated to be serious.

Those injured on the ground were Amarendra Mishra, Brajesh Mishra, Mithilesh Kumar and Poonam Dutta.

Mr Yadav said the pilot of the ill-fated plane contacted the ATC and sought its permission to take another round when the aircraft was flying at a height of 1500 to 2000 feet above the ground.

Suddenly the plane lost contact with the ATC and started descending, grazed a neem tree and then crashed into a row of government flats in the vicinity of Raj Bhavan and State Secretariat, he said.

Fortynine bodies, including those of two pilots and four crew members, have already been extricated from the debris, while two others are still trapped inside.

Mr Yadav announced a judicial inquiry headed by a sitting judge of the Patna High Court and said he would send the request for it to the Chief Justice of the court today itself.

The departmental inquiry led by Director-General of Civil Aviation H.S. Khola has already begun.

Mr Yadav said, the visibility at the time of the incident was “quite clear” and there was no mechanical failure.

He announced that the Civil Aviation Ministry would give an ex gratia of Rs 7.5 lakh to the dependents of each of those killed in the crash, while Rs 3.5 lakh would be given to the injured, who are being flown to Delhi for treatment at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

The Alliance Air flight had a capacity to seat 130.

The passengers included 44 men, five women and three children. The two pilots — Capt Sohanpal and Capt A.S. Bagga — and four air hostesses — S. Khurana, Sapna, P. Mawai and Pushpa, were among the dead.

In 1996, all 351 passengers were killed in a mid-air collision between a Saudi Airliner and a Kazhak aircraft at Charkhi Dadri in Haryana.

State Chief Secretary V.S. Dubey, who lives close to where the plane went down, said he saw the plane nosedive.

The Bihar Governor, Mr Vinod Chandra Pandey mourned the death of passengers in today’s Alliance Boeing 737 plane crash.

Mr Pandey, who personally visited the spot, went to Patna Medical College Hospital to take stock of the situation and met the bereaved family members. He also announced an ex gratia of Rs 5000 each to the deceased and the injured and the residents of the government colony, onto which the plane crashed.

TNS adds from New Delhi: The President Mr K.R. Narayanan, the Prime Minister Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Vice-President, Mr Krishan Kant on Monday expressed shock over the plane crash near Patna and extended heartfelt condolences to the families of those killed in the mishap


Aircraft was 20 yrs old
No grounding of fleet: govt

From T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

NEW DELHI, JULY 17 — The crash of an Alliance Air plane while landing at Patna this morning which led to the death of 55 persons has once again raised serious questions about stringent safety parameters in the civil aviation sector.

The Union Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav, the Director General of Civil Aviation, Mr H.S. Khola, along with a retinue of officers rushed to Patna. Mr Yadav announced that there will be a judicial probe into the crash. The inquiry would be conducted by a sitting judge of the Patna High Court.

There are indications that the crash may be due to pilot error or technical problems in the ageing aircraft even though it was declared airworthy. This particular 737-200 series aircraft was 20 years old and the Boeing company had stopped the production of this plane over a decade ago. Nevertheless, an estimated 500 aircraft of this type continue to operate, especially in the developing and least developed countries.

The Civil Aviation Secretary, Mr A.H. Jung, told a press conference within hours of the plane crash that the pilot had orbited the Patna airport twice and perhaps misjudged the height while coming in to land. He was unaware if an engine of the aircraft had caught fire before it crashed. He emphasised that orbiting the airport was a normal procedure to lose height before aligning with the runway for landing.

Mr Jung said at this point “we can only hazard a guess that the aircraft’s height was less during its second approach as it hit a residential complex and crashed. He said the instrumental landing and other systems of the aircraft were in perfect order. He was also emphatic that the visibility at the airport was adequate and the pilot did not make any contact with the air traffic control about any unusual vibration or disturbance in the engines.

Mr Jung refused to comment if the crash had taken place due to possible pilot error. “An inquiry is on and we will not like to come to any conclusion at this stage,” he observed. He ruled out any foul play and pointed out that the 35-year-old commander of the aircraft, Capt M.S. Sohan Pal had a good flying record, having logged nearly 4,350 hours till June 30. The aircraft was on a Calcutta-Patna-Lucknow-Delhi flight.

A senior official of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) which oversees civil aviation ruled out the grounding of the 737-200 fleet with Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Indian Airlines, just because of “one accident.” A trifle flustered, he said the “aircraft’s airworthiness was not in doubt as otherwise somebody would have reported it necessitating repairs. It is not possible to ground Alliance Air’s 737-200 fleet as the situation did not warrant it.”

Asked to comment about the general impression among the travelling public and seasoned aviators that the 737-200s had become death traps in the sky, the DGCA official said such sweeping assessments were uncalled for because of “one accident in Patna. And in any case the pilot of the aircraft never reported any problems to the air traffic control. There are hundreds of such aircraft still taking to the skies all over the world,” he added.

An official of Indian Airlines claimed that an aircraft never gets old. He said the 737-200s needed greater maintenance and admitted that there could be problems in the availability of spare parts. The economic aspects of keeping the 737-200s in the air might be unnerving.

The Alliance Air is now left with 11 737-200 aircraft in its fleet after the crash in Patna. The minimum age of these planes was officially disclosed as 18. Passengers travelling by Alliance Air jets have found the interiors coming apart. They have faced uncomfortable vibration and noise levels as well.

Seasoned aviators paint a grim picture of the civil aviation environment in the country. They warn that with Indian airspace becoming highly overcrowded due to the open sky policy, crashes are only waiting to happen as little is being done to ensure safety. To buttress their point, they draw attention to the increasing number of near misses at heights ranging from 20,000 and 30,000 feet. Though the commanders of such aircraft involved in “near misses” have reported these incidents, nothing has been done in this regard.

A former Union Civil Aviation Minister and senior Congress leader, Mr Madhavrao Scindia has asked for serious consideration whether aircraft above a certain age should be used for passenger service. Underlining the need for stringent safety audit, Mr Scindia expressed concern that Alliance Air was using old aircraft.


Crash site presents ghastly sight

PATNA, July 17 (UNI) — Mutilated bodies, broken cabin baggage and pieces of the ill-fated Alliance aircraft strewn all over reflect the magnitude of the crash in which 61 people, including 54 on board, and seven persons on the ground, were killed.

Two government quarters besides several huts nearby had been totally razed to the ground and whereabouts of the people were yet to be ascertained. Though using cranes and fire tenders, the Army personnel and civil authorities were facing a tough time extricating the bodies from the debris as a huge crowd had gathered near the crash site.

Officials confirmed that the all important black box holding the vital clue of the plane crash was yet to be recovered. Rescue and relief personnel refused to divulge any concrete information to the UNI team at the crash site about the survivors as the bodies were being recovered slowly.

According to local people, the plane, which was over the Railway crossing gate no. 15 at around 7.30 a.m., suddenly nose-dived towards the quarters after catching fire, just about two km short of the runway of Patna airport.

The aircraft had first hit a peepal tree and then dashed into a mango grove damaging its wings and the upper portion of a single-storey house before finally crashing into two adjoining buildings with a huge explosion. The people also saw smoke billowing out prior to the crash.

Mr Umakant Tiwari, a local resident who informed the police patrol about the crash, said he started yelling after seeing the smoke coming out of the plane which crashed near his house. He feared that families of one Amarendra Mishra, an employee of the Revenue Department, and of Mr Dutta, a typist in the Finance Department, were buried in the debris.

He said that there were nine members in Mr Mishra’s family and eight in Mr Dutta’s family, including his four daughters.

Sources confirmed that three persons residing in the houses and the huts were rushed to the hospital in a critical condition.

Local people alleged that the Airport authorities were very late in reaching the spot but the police were quite prompt and started the preliminary rescue operation within 15 minutes of the crash.

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