Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tragedy in the skies: Day 1

Construction of second runaway faced legal battles

India biggest airline tragedy in Mangalore is largely being attributed to the newly-opened second runway at the Mangalore international airport.

The construction of the second runway was always embroiled in controversy and there have been several legal battles fought over this.

A series of public interest litigations had been filed in Karnataka courts over the past couple of years in which it was stated that the construction of the second runway should be stopped since the design did not conform to the most basic national and international standards of airport design.

The PILs also highlighted that the airport does not conform to most minimum safeguards for emergency situations -- particularly during landings and takeoffs, and that the airport did not have emergency approach roads within a kilometre on all sides of the airport as required.

Vimana Nildana Vistharana Virodhi Samithi (Local Communities Alliance Against Airport Expansion), Bajpe and the Environment Support Group had repeatedly highlighted the high-risk expansion of the Mangalore international airport during the late 1990s.

The expansion was proposed to enable flight movements of wide-bodied aircraft, such as the Airbus A-320.

Authorities were repeatedly informed that the proposal did not at all conform to runway design standards laid down by the Director General of Civil Aviation, National Building Code of India and Ministry of Civil Aviation. Further, considering that the airport was proposed for international flights, a case was also made that the second runway did not conform to International Civil Aviation Organisation standards due to terrain limitations.

The NGOs say that no one in authority cared to listen to their pleas. This even when they demonstrated through a variety of representations that that the site chosen for expansion at Bajpe was surrounded by valleys on three sides of the runway and did not provide for emergency landing areas as required.

When their pleas were not heard, they moved the Karnataka high court in a PIL in 1997 (Arthur Pereira and others vs Union of India and others., WP No. 37681/1997).

The Airports Authority of India filed an affidavit in court dismissing all concerns and stated this, amongst other things:

"It is submitted that as regards the apprehensions of the petitioner that the length and width of the runway is insufficient for a plane making an emergency landing, the same is without any basis. It is submitted that all the requirements as per the ICAO recommendation will be met and that there has been no infringement of any of the recommendation and limitation therein."

On the basis of this affidavit, the high court dismissed the PIL ordering as follows:

"It is stated that the fear of the petitioners that the runway is insufficient for any emergency landing is without basis since before the project is to proceed, the authorities will be meeting the recommendations of the ICAO. It is also stated that there is no basis for the allegations made by the petitioners to the effect that the various safety measures have not been followed. That on the other hand they will be getting all the relevant materials described by the petitioners which will be followed in letter and spirit without which the airport would not have been conceived in the first place. Thus it can be seen that the expansion of Bajpe airport project is at the initial stage and the second respondent has in their objections mentioned above unequivocally stated that all the safety measures etc, stated by the petitioners in their writ petition will be followed during the progress of the project and nothing can be said before the lands are handed over to the second respondent.

"Considering these facts, we are of the view that the petitioners have rushed to this court before commencement of the project itself and the writ petition is premature. It is not, therefore, necessary to consider the various grounds taken by the petitioners in the writ petition to allege that the respondents have been proceeding with the project in a casual manner. There is nothing to doubt about the statement made by the second respondent in their objection statement and we are sure that the respondents will be taking all necessary measures under the different enactments etc before proceeding with the project in question."

Even though alternative sites existed, the authorities proceeded to expand the airport yielding to pressures from business, real estate and hotel lobbies, say activists against the project. They allege that authorities overlooked alternative sites even near Bajpe to expand the airport that conformed with most safety norms, since it would have affected large landholders and influential people.

AAI did not even have a proper feasibility study, and claimed that such critical information detail would only be prepared after the land was acquired, the activists alleged.

The NGOs then appealed to the ICAO to intervene. The ICAO did not respond and so they returned to the high court with a fresh PIL in 2002. In this exhaustively-researched PIL many significant concerns were raised and a case was made that the second runway could not conform to ICAO norms for the following reasons:

"Minimum Area for Stop-way: ICAO norms prescribes standards for providing the minimum area for a stop way and/or a clear way in the event an aircraft undershoots or over-runs the runway. For instance, if an aircraft has initiated take off, and a technical flaw requires emergency stop, the standard prescribes the minimum area that should be kept free to enable such a stop. In the instant case, the runway distance itself is about 2,400 metres, and even if the area left is most cautiously utilised, what is left is only about 300 metres on each end of the runway. By the prescribed standard, this is far below the required distance needed for an emergency stop way.

"Therefore, the chances of an aircraft that has achieved the decision speed forcing an emergency stop are critically minimised, and the inevitable consequence could be that the plane crash down the hillsides from a height of 80-100 metres on either side of the proposed runway."

The high court dismissed this PIL on May 27, 2002 (WP 20905/2002) stating the following:

"No doubt, in an appropriate case, this court can issue directions, if there is gross violation of fundamental rights or if the issue touches the conscience of this court. The construction of second runway and terminal tower at Mangalore Airport will otherwise be in the interest of public. Learned counsel has not been able to show how the construction will be against the public interest.

"On consideration and in the facts of the given case no direction as prayed for can be issued in this PIL. The authorities concerned have to complete all formalities as per law before commencement of the project. Accordingly, this writ petition is dismissed. However, it is made clear that dismissal of this petition will not preclude the concerned Authorities to take all necessary precaution and to complete the formalities as per law before proceeding with the project in question."

In a desperate effort to stop the airport from so expanding, they went on appeal to the Supreme Court. Dismissing the appeal, the apex court ruled on February 7, 2003 in Environment Support Group and others vs Union of India and others. [SLP(C) 1172 OF 2003] as follows:

"We see no reason to interfere with the impugned order. Accordingly, the special leave petition is dismissed. We, however, clarify that in constructing the airport, the government shall comply with all applicable laws and also with environmental norms."

The second runway construction began in 2004 and was commissioned in May 2006. No techno-economic assessment, feasibility study, or even a comprehensive environment impact assessment was ever done for the second runway. Simply put, the runway was built in comprehensive violation of applicable laws, standards and direction of the Supreme Court, alleges Leo Saldanha, coordinator of the ESG.

On March 8, 2004, the NGOs wrote to Dr Naseem Zaidi, chairman and joint secretary, AAI reminding him of the need to comply with the Supreme Court direction. They highlighted that "such action would jeopardise passenger safety, put local communities to risk, needlessly dislocate people by acquiring land on a location that in no way could comply with the said provisions and thereby contributed to gross wastage of public money and resources."

We did not get any response, Saldanha says.

Moily's miraculous escape

Did you know that Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily also had a miraculous escape when his plane also veered off the runway in Mangalore and rolled down a cliff?

On August 19, 1981 an Avro aircraft from Bangalore landed at the airport despite not getting clearance from the Air Traffic Control due to poor visibility. The plane veered off the runway (which is on a hill) and rolled down the valley. Fortunately, huge boulders blocked the plane and prevented it from plunging into 300-feet-deep valley. The engine caught fire but no casualties were reported and all the passengers escaped with minor injuries. Moily, who was then Karnataka's finance minister, managed to escape by jumping out of the aircraft and running up the hill.

The aircraft was not removed from the side of the hill for months and it became a tourist an attraction for the locals who frequented the hill or a road nearby to have a look at the aircraft. It was finally sold as scrap.

Ironically, Moily recalled the incident during the inauguration of the new terminal at Mangalore just last week.

Human errorThe preliminary findings of the Directorate of Civil Aviation points that there was no technical snag on the aircraft and they attribute the crash to a human error. A DGCA team, which is conducting investigations, has found that the crash occurred due to a pilot or human error.

A source in the team told rediff.com that this is only a preliminary finding and the exact picture could be given only once they retrieve the black box. The search for the box is still on and it could take a while for them to recover the same.

The DGCA team is also planning on questioning a man, Mohammad Usman, who was on the flight. Usman was in the flight for over an hour after the crash and he had been rescued in a miraculous fashion. Usman is in a state of shock, but not critical and has been admitted to the Wenlock hospital in Mangalore. Not going into any further details, the DGCA team said that they would need some more time before putting out a final report.

Where is the Black Box?

The Black Box from the crash site at Mangalore is taking exceptionally long to find. Despite rescue teams being at the spot along with fire fighters and police personnel, they have not managed to recover the black box which has crucial last-minute recordings.

Police personnel, part of the rescue team, say that the entire focus since morning was around the recovering of the bodies. "We were specifically told that first priority shall be given to recovering the bodies which we have been doing since morning. We still have three more bodies to recover and the chance of their survival is very grim," they said.

"Moreover, it is extremely difficult to work around the site. The wreckage is too heavy and the weather conditions very poor. We suspect that the box is under the wreckage. Once the bodies are recovered and the wreckage cleared, the look for the black box would commence," they said.

How the flight plunged into the valley

The death toll has now officially risen to 159, even as search operations continue in the jungles nearby.

Rediff.com as the confirmed sequence of events that eventually led to the air crash.

According to the notes prepared by the team investigating the air crash, the aircraft was set to land at 6.05 am and the visibility according to the Air Traffic Control was good.

However, the aircraft did not stop and crossed the runway spillover area of 90 metres.

In this process, it ploughed through sandbags and veered off.

The wing of the aircraft then hit a localiser, which functions as a landing aid for pilots, and was ripped off the aircraft's body.

Due to this, the aircraft plunged 300 metres down the cliff, and exploded after catching fire.

Preliminary investigations revealed that the pilot of the Dubai-Mangalore flight had overshot the runway by 300 metres.

A total 158 people have been killed in the crash. A total of 124 bodies have been identified so far.

It requires a lot of precision to land at the Mangalore airport since it has a table top runway and is located on top of a hill, officials said.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation will probe the incident and the real reason behind the crash will be known in a day or two.

Final details of the aircraft

Preliminary investigations into the plane crash at Mangalore have made a couple of notes regarding the last minute details of the aircraft. The toll officially is now 159 person even as search operations in the jungles continue.

The aircraft is all set to land at 6.05 am and the visibility according to the ATC was good.

However the aircraft does not stop and cross the runway spillover area of 90 metres.

During this process it ploughs through sandbags and veers off.

The wing of the aircraft then hits a localizer which performs the function of a landing aid. Due to this the wing falls off and the aircraft plunges 300 metres down the cliff.

The plane explodes after it catches fire.

Pilot had overshot the runway by 300 meters
Preliminary investigations say that the left wing of the plane hit a tree when pilot was trying to re-take off
AI announces Rs 2 lakh for victims families and Rs 50000 for survivors
Search for black box on
11 more bodies identified, all bodies at the Wenlock hospital
Karnataka announces one day mourning and Kerala announces two

M'lore airport's international status under question

In a set back the civil aviation minister praful patel said that he would re look into the international status for the mangalore airport following todays incident. The minister said at a press conference that the issue would be taken up at the cabinet level and discussed. He said that money is not the issue to develop the airport but certain aspects regarding safety and other factors will have to be discussed before going ahead. This would mean that the airport would have a custom status which would operate international flights with the existing infrastructure. The minister further said that there is a proposal to increase the run way length to 9000 metres cs against the existing 7000 metres. This too would be taken up for consideration he said.

The minister sai all assistance will be given to the famiiy members and added that a probe had been ordered.

Meanwhile rescue operations are almost coming to a close. The police say that they are looking for two more bodies and should be able to find them soon.

Three more survivors found at crash site
The rescue team has recovered three more survivors from the crash site. However, police sources said, their chances of survival appeared to be grim.

Sources said the rescue team found the three passengers breathing as they were in the last stage of the recovery operations.

The police said the operation was likely to be closed in another one hour.

So far, the police has recovered 139 bodies, of which 113 bodies have been identified. None of the crewmembers survived the crash.

Chief Pilot, a British national of Serbian origin, Captain Zlatko Gausica, Co-pilot Ahluwaliva from Bangalore, airhostess Sujatha Survase, aircrew Mohammed Ali and Tejal Kamalkar, are among the six crew members who died in the crash.

The official death toll is now reached 160 and all the bodies have been sent to Wenlock hospital in Mangalore, where relatives have been pouring in.

An official statement from the district administration has suggested that 105 men died in the crash which included 36 women and 19 children.

Sixty passengers were from Kerala, while the remaining were from Karnataka.

Meanwhile, the airport runway has been opened for light aircraft. Regular operations may not commence on the airport for time being, as there have been criticisms that the Bajpe runway is short and must be extended.

Patel orders probe in crash

Patel, civil aviation minister who arrived in Mangalore and also visited the survivors at hospital has ordered a high level probe into the incident. Apart from a central team which would conduct the investigations, a team of the DGCA would also conduct a probe into the incident.

The probe would get a direction once the black box is retrieved. However that would take time since rescue operations are still on. A team of the DGCA from Bangalore and New Delhi will be assisted by a team from Boeing in conducting the probe.

Meanwhile the state of Kerala has announced two days mourning in the state as majority of the passengers who lost their lives in the crash are from that state. Karnataka is yet to make any such announcement. The Chief Minister of Karnataka who had adventourous journey just managed to reach Mangalore along with his Home Minister and the state police chief. His chopper was forced to land in Hassan due to bad weather and he had to take the road route to reach Mangalore.

Meanwhile the Mangalore airport will remain shut and the time as to when it would reopen has not been specified as yet. All flights bound for Mangalore will be diverted to Calicut or Kozhikode according to the Airport Authority of India


Three member DGCA team lands in mangalore. The team is assisted by team from bangalore. Probe to commence shortly Sent on my BlackBerry® from Vodafone Essar

Survivor tales

A pale of gloom has descended on the state of Karnataka following one of the worst plane crashes. As rescue operations go on unabated, there are various stories that are coming out.

Manirekha Poonja and her 17 year old daughter Harshini were on their way to attend a cousins wedding. They had boarded the ill-fated flight last night at Dubai.

Shailesh Rao, who is working in Dubai was in Mangalore just two days back. He had visited Mangalore two days back to meet his ailing mother. On Thursday he returned to Dubai, but the next day he got news of his mother’s death. He boarded the flight back to Mangalore on Friday, but unfortunately for him the plane crashed.

Meanwhile Boeing has announced that it would send a team to assist the investigations into the crash. A team is expected to arrive in a day or two and would be providing technical assistance to the investigating team here.

Rescue operations in Mangalore continued and the team is finding the job very hard. Police said that the bad weather coupled with the fact that the plane crashed in a jungle is making the job harder. Moreover they are unable to identified the bodies since they are charred beyond recognition. Rescue operations had been called off for an hour due to bad weather.

Air India spokesman, K Swaminathan, said the flight IX 812 overshot the runway while landing. He said it is too early to speculate and said that they were awaiting the report.
The speculations are that the crash would have happened due to brake failure, error of judgment on the part of the pilot or tyre burst. The rescue operations were hit for an hour as the drizzle turned into heavy downpour, with parts of the plane having rolled into ravines near the airport. The local airport has been temporarily closed.

Worst crash in Indian aviation history

The deadly plane crash at Mangalore on Saturday, which has left 158 persons dead, is one of the biggest in Indian aviation history. Prior to this, the worst airline crash witnessed in Karnataka was on February 14, 1990, in Bangalore, in which 89 persons were killed. However, there were 50 survivors in that crash.

That ill-fated plane which crashed in Bangalore was an Indian Airlines flight, which was two months old and was coming from Mumbai. At that time, the plane had undershot the runway by around 1000 feet and hit an empty reservoir in a golf course near the old airport in Bangalore.

Another major tragedy that India had witnessed in the skies was the plane crash at Ahmedabad in 1998, in which 133 people were killed. This is an indication that the crash that took place in Mangalore on Saturday is the biggest in Indian aviation history. The aircraft at Ahmedabad was Boeing 737 and the crash was attributed to a pilot error.

Recent crashes across the world:

*Boeing 737 from Indonesia crashes on January 1, 2007 at the Sulawesi islands killing 102 passengers.

*114 killed on Kenya Airways flight after plane crashed at Cameroon on May 5, 2007

*199 persons on Brazilian TAM aircraft killed at Sao Paolo on July 17, 2007

*On September 16, 2007, 123 passengers were killed when a Thai aircraft crashed at Phuket.

*166 passengers aboard Spanair were killed after it crashed at the Madrid airport on August, 2008

*On May 20 2009, 98 persons aboard the Indonesian C130 aircraft were killed after it crashed at the Iswahyudi air base.

*228 persons aboard the Air France airbus killed on June 1 2009 when the aircraft crashed over the Atlantic.

*A Yemen airways carrying 153 persons crashed off the Indian Ocean on June 30, 2009.

*The Caspian airline carrying 153 passengers crashed at the city of Qazvin on July 15, 2009.

*90 passengers were killed when an Ethiponan airline crashed minutes after taking off at the Beirut airport.

*On April 10, 2010, 96 people aboard Polish President Lech Kaczynski's official Tupolev Tu-154 plane were killed in crash near Smolensk airport in western Russia.

*On May 12, 2010, an Afriqiyah Airways A330-200 Airbus crashed in Libya, killing 103 people.

Mangalore airport toughest for landing

The Mangalore airport is considered to be one of the toughest for pilots thanks to the table-top runway which requires a great amount of precision for pilots to land.

Sources told rediff.com that the pilot of ill-fated aircraft who was a Russian may have missed the runway and hence was trying to abort landing. The aircraft which was scheduled to land at 6.30 am on Saturday morning was unable to do so and hence the pilot tried to re-take off and in the bargain the aircraft hit a pole as a result of which the plane skidded off and fell into a valley. This is what the preliminary report says.

Air Traffic Control officials who also pointed out that there was no SOS from the pilot and add that the plane plunged into a valley after overshooting the runway. The black box is yet to be retrieved and a Director General of Civil Aviation team has arrived in Mangalore to probe the incident.

Table-top: The Mangalore airport is considered to be one of the toughest to land since it is located on top of a hill and the runway landing approaches extreme edges on the sides of the hill and hence it is called table-top. The edges of the hill drop into the valley from a height of 300 feet with a short distance of 500 metres on the east side of the runway and 83 metres to 25 metres on the western side. A big disadvantage here is that the runway is not level and the height varies between 90 metres to 83 metres from eastern to western side.

The Mangalore International Airport formerly known as the Bajpe airport was inaugurated in the year 1951. Situated at a distance of 20 kilometres from the city, this airport handles 700 flights at an average every year.

International operations at this airport commenced in the year 2006 and the Air-India Express was the first to commence operations here.

Reasons for crash

Initial reports that are coming in suggest that the left wing of the plane hit a pole and this is the cause for the crash. D B Sadananda Gowda, member of Parliament who is at the spot told rediff.com that the information that he has been getting from the officials suggested that the pilot was unable to land the plane and hence he tried to re-take off and while trying to do so, the left wing hit a pole as a result of which the plane burst into flames.

Further officials also said that it requires a lot of precision to land at the Mangalore airport since it has a table top runway and is located on top of a hill.

The DGCA is all set to probe the incident and in a day or two the real reason for the crash will be made known. Earlier it was said that there was poor visibility and this may have led to the crash. However ATC officials say that the visibility was of 6 kilometre and this is good for landing. Moreover the ATC officials also said that there was no communication and hence they did not suspect any malfunction to the aircraft.

AI flight crashed 5 minutes before landing

It was a matter of five minutes before the aircraft would have landed. Eye witnesses who witnessed the crash said that they heard a loud sound at around 6.30 AM.

The plane was flying low and just five minutes before the landing it overshot the run way and burst into flames. In all there were 137 adult passengers on the flight, 23 children and 6 crew members. Although Indian Airlines has not issued an official statement on the details of the passengers, it is said that all the passengers were from Mangalore, Kasargod and Udupi district.

The Home Minister had said that 6 persons had been rescued. However the death toll raised by one more as a 11 year old girl who was being treated in hospital died. Another person Farooq who managed to jump out of the plane is out of danger and is being treated at hospital. The condition of three more in hospital is said to be critical. A 23 year old lady Sabina is out of danger. An intern with a hospital in Mangalore, this lady was found hanging on a tree after the crash.

Rescue who managed to put out the fire on the aircraft. The bodies that are being retrieved are all charred beyond recognition. Scores of people have surrounded the area including the relatives of those who were on the aircraft.

The survivors are being treated at the AJ, SCS, Wenlock and KMC hospitals

The Crash
A major tragedy struck at Mangalore when an Air India Express Flight from Dubai crashed when it was about to land. Home Minister V S Acharya said that when he last got information 150 persons were feared dead in the crash. In all there were 169 passengers on board and when reports last came in, there were 6 persons who had been rescued.

The plane which was coming in to Mangalore from Dubai crashed at the Bajpe airport in Mangalore at around 6.30 AM. Although there was no message from the pilot before the plane crashed, the reason that is being pointed out is poor visibility. Due to this the plane overshot the runway and the aircraft engulfed in flames and fell into a nearby valley.

Several rescue teams have been pressed into service and are undertaking opereations in full swing. However they were finding hard to conduct operations due to the rains and poor weather.

Photograph courtesy: Daiji World

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