The black box of an Air India Express jet that overshot the tabletop runway of the Calicut International Airport while arriving from Dubai, nosedived and split into two was recovered on Saturday, even as authorities launched an investigation into the worst air disaster in India in a decade that has claimed 18 lives.
Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri visited the site of the accident on Saturday to assess the situation on the ground. “It (the plane) overshot the runway while trying to land amid what were clearly inclement weather conditions prevailing at that time,” he said at a news briefing, but added that it was still too early to speculate on the cause of the crash.
The Union minister said two separate teams reached Kozhikode from New Delhi to carry out investigations into the crash. Responders managed to rescue most of the passengers because the plane did not catch fire while descending the slope at the end of the runway, he added.
Puri said there was no question over the pilots’ competence.
An official from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered from the crash site on Saturday. The cockpit voice recorder keeps a recording of all the conversations taking place in a plane’s cockpit and along with the flight data recorder, which logs data such as airspeed, altitude and fuel flow, it can help in determining the cause of the crash.
Air India Express AIX1344 was a repatriation flight under the Vande Bharat programme for Indians who were stranded outside the country amid travel restrictions brought on by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.
On Saturday, the sample of one of the passengers who died in the accident tested positive for the infectious disease, with state health minister KK Shailaja asking all those engaged in rescue operations to go into self-quarantine as a precautionary measure and get themselves tested.
Puri earlier said the passengers included 174 adult passengers, 10 children, four cabin crew and two pilots.
“We were happy when we were about to touch down and I told my wife sitting beside me that rain was a welcome sign. But the happiness was short-lived. Suddenly, there were big jerks and loud cries. I tumbled out of my seat and lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes at the hospital, I was happy to see my injured wife. A pregnant woman, who was sitting next to us, was not so lucky,” said a survivor, who did not wish to be identified.
Many people eager to see their injured relatives engaged hospital workers, who could be seen repeatedly asking them to maintain social distancing under Covid-19 prevention rules.
The commander of the aircraft, Deepak Vasant Sathe, a former fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force, had 10,000 hours of flying experience on the Boeing 737 aircraft, Puri said. Out of those, he flew 6,662 hours as commander. Sathe had landed at the challenging airport 27 times, including more than 10 times this year. His co-pilot, 32-year-old Akhilesh Kumar, also had experience of 1,728 hours of flying with the aircraft.
“He (Sathe) was a very accomplished, experienced, decorated person in command of the aircraft. There is absolutely no doubt over their competence,” Puri said.
The minister left from Delhi to Kozhikode on Saturday morning along with two probe teams. One flight took off around 2am from Delhi, carrying investigating officers from DGCA, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB), the CEO of Air India Express and other officials of the national transporter, people aware of the developments said. Another flight from Mumbai to Kozhikode took off around 6am, carrying a rescue team of Air India to provide support and assist families of those affected by the accident, they added.
Air India Express is a subsidiary of state-run airline Air India.
“Reached Kozhikode to take stock of the status & implementation of relief measures after the air accident last evening. Will hold consultations with senior civil aviation officials & professionals. Digital Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder of the ill-fated aircraft have been retrieved. AAIB is conducting investigations. It is very unfortunate that 18 people including the two pilots have lost their lives in this air accident. I once again offer my condolences to the families of the bereaved & wish speedy recovery to those injured,” Puri tweeted.
The civil aviation ministry’s accident investigation division, AAIB, will conduct a detailed investigation into the crash. The bureau’s role is to conduct independent aircraft accident investigation and to obtain a preliminary report on the accident and assist in setting up of a committee of inquiry and formal investigation in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) rules.
The so-called tabletop airport has limited space at the end of the runway, and several international airlines have stopped flying bigger aircraft into Kozhikode in the past due to safety issues over the length of the runway.
Puri said that there was no need to speculate on what happened during the crash till the probe was been completed and DGCA filed an investigation report.
“We will look into all the issues. Let me tell you that there are tabletop airports not just in our country, but all over the world. These airports pose a problem but then landing clearances are given based on the experience of the pilots. Let us not speculate as a full and comprehensive probe will take place,” he added.
According to a route playback on flight-tracking website FlightRadar24, the plane circled the airport twice before attempting to land. In its second instance, it aborted the attempt with 2,000 feet to go.
The crash has claimed at least 18 lives, including the two pilots. Air India Express on Saturday said it will provide an interim compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the family members of the deceased passengers over 12 years of age and above Rs 5 lakh to those of passengers below the age of 12. Rs 2 lakh each will be given to critically injured passengers and Rs 50,000 to other injured passengers.
The Kerala government said the condition of 23 of the 149 injured undergoing treatment at various hospitals was critical while one more person succumbed on Saturday, taking the death toll to 18.
According to an official document issued by the government, four of the deceased were children — three girls and a one-year old boy — and seven were men and other women. Two girls were aged two and the other was five.
“It was raining heavily and we suddenly heard a deafening sound and the aircraft came out of the boundary wall and fell on the road. We couldn’t believe it. Soon, we heard cries for help. Smoke was billowing and there was smell of aircraft fuel also,” said Mohamad Sahal, one of the first people to reach the spot.
Air India Express said the families of the deceased pilots were escorted to Kozhikode. The airline also said three relief flights had been arranged to assist passengers and their family members affected in the accident that also brought back memories of the crash of Air India Express flight IX 812 on May 22, 2010, at the Mangaluru International Airport.
The flight from Dubai had overshot the runway and plunged down the cliff into a wooded valley, killing 158 people.
An aviation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that it emerged DGCA had issued a show-cause notice to the director of the Kozhikode airport on July 11 last year after it found “various critical safety lapses”. DCGA had pointed to cracks on the runway, water stagnation and excessive rubber deposits among other lapses in its show-cause notice, the official added.
Safety concerns over flight operations at tabletop runways in airports were raised following the 2010 Air India Express crash in Mangaluru. A court of enquiry report by Air Marshal BN Gokhale had then noted tabletop airports required extra skill and caution while carrying out flight operations. It said that the hazard of “undershooting” and “overshooting”, in particular, can lead to grave situations, as was the case in the Mangaluru accident.