M A I N   N E W S

What went wrong?
Govt points finger at shorter runway, experts say could be pilot error
Vibha Sharma/Tribune News Service

New Delhi, May 22
The Air India Express flight IX-812 aircraft that crashed at Mangalore was piloted by Z Glucia — a Serbian national — with first officer Capt SS Ahluwalia as his co-pilot.

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said both were experienced pilots. Glucia had logged more than 10,000 hours of flying time and was familiar with the table-top runway, having landed there nearly 20 times in the past. Patel said landing conditions were fair with good visibility, but suggested a short runway overrun area could have contributed to the disaster. “Mangalore does not have much of a spillover area (and) in this case apparently it had not been able to stop the plane,” he said.

US-based aircraft manufacturer Boeing said it was sending a team of investigators to India to help in the crash probe. Civil Aviation Secretary Madhavan Nambiar said the Mangalore runway logged 32,000 aircraft landings since it became operational in 2006.At this point of time, the primary concern is to retrieve the black box that will help investigators reconstruct the last moments in the cockpit. The Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA) has rushed a team to investigate matters.

The weather was also not too bad. Though there was a slight drizzle when the disaster occurred, reports suggest the Captain did not report any malfunction to ATC before landing. The touchdown also appeared to be normal. So what went so horribly wrong that the pilot of the Boeing 737 overshot the runway’s landing zone and plunged into a valley killing 158 people in India’s worst civil aviation disaster for 14 years.

While the clear picture will emerge after the flight data recorder is recovered and examined, majority of pilots --- both from civil and defence sectors --- are pointing fingers towards the pilot, rather than the length of the runway or the shorter safety area at the end. The key issue emerging here is who was in control at the point of landing -Captain or the co-pilot. Many pilots suspect it was the co-pilot who landed the aircraft. Questions are also being raised on technical aspects of the aircraft.

Pilots, and the ones who have flown Boeing 737 and operated from the Mangalore table-top airfield when the runway was much shorter, say that 8000-feet runway is sufficient because if the performance regarding landing distance was not sufficient for any class of aircraft, the operator, in this case Air India, would not have operated flights from there.

Captain Sanjay Kashyap, an experienced Boeing pilot, says most probably the pilot was high on approach or on speed because of which the aircraft touched down ahead of the “touchdown zone”, leaving it with much lesser runway length for run-up on the ground. His problems may have been aggravated by the fact that the flight was full.

Kashyap, who has landed at Mangalore on a much shorter runway, says an 8000-feet runway is sufficient for Boeing 737 --- backbone of many short-haul and medium-haul fleets. The aircraft is also being used by IAF’s Air Headquaters Communications Squadron for ferrying VVIPs of the country. There are unconfirmed reports suggesting that there may have been a tyre burst, which made it difficult for the pilot to bring the aircraft to a halt.“When a pilot lands he cannot touch down at the precise point. You land in a touchdown zone, which is the first 3,000 feet of the runway. For an aircraft of Boeing class, you need another 3,000-4,000 feet depending on the weight and weather conditions at the runway. If you touch down within the first 1000-2000 feet, which a pilot wants to do, there is sufficient length at hand to bring the aircraft to halt,” a senior Boeing pilot from the IAF says.

But if a pilot lands ahead of the touchdown zone and then applies hard brakes, there are increased chances of tyre burst and the plane going out of control, especially if the runway is wet. In this case, while technically runway length was sufficient, the pilot is suspected to have landed ahead of the touchdown zone, leaving very less space for braking at ground before he overshot.

Aquaplaning is another reason being attributed for the mishap Hydroplaning or aquaplaning by the tyres of a vehicle, aircraft or sometimes rollercoaster occurs when a layer of water builds between the rubber tyres of the vehicle and the road surface, leading to the loss of traction and thus preventing the vehicle from responding to control inputs such as steering, braking or accelerating.





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