An investigation team of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation on Saturday arrived at the site of the Air India Express plane crash in Kozhikode, the Hindustan Times reported. Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan accompanied the team.
At least 18 people, including two pilots, were killed and over 100 were injured when the Boeing-737 flight from Dubai, repatriating Indians stranded due to the Covid-19 pandemic, overshot the runway amid heavy rain. The plane was carrying 190 passengers and crew. Among them 10 were infants.
However, four cabin crew members of the airline are safe, Air India Express said in a statement, according to PTI. It said the cabin crew suffered some injuries and were being treated at the Kozhikode hospital.
Muraleedharan told ANI that Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri will reach the site of crash by Saturday noon. “I have seen debris, the aircraft is broken into two pieces,” he added. “Inspection is being done. Some part of aircraft was torn apart during rescue operation. [The] DGCA has announced enquiry.”
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Governor Arif Mohammad Khan will also visit Karipur on Saturday.
Puri said the deaths of people was unfortunate. “Eighteen people, including two pilots, have lost their lives, it is unfortunate,” he said, according to ANI. “[There are] 127 people at hospitals, others have been released.... Pilot must have tried to bring the flight to the end of tabletop airport’s runway where it skidded due to slippery conditions owing to monsoon.”
Air India Express said that three relief flights had been arranged for Kozhikode to assist passengers and their families affected due to the crash, reported PTI. “The Emergency Response Director is coordinating with all the agencies in Calicut (Kozhikode), Mumbai as well as Delhi, Dubai for effective emergency response,” the airline said in a statement. “The AAIB (Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau), DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) & Flight Safety Departments have reached for investigating the accident.”
Video footage from the site showed the aircraft split into two chunks after the plane’s fuselage sheared apart. Puri said authorities managed to rescue most of the passengers because the plane did not catch fire while descending the slope at the end of the table-top runway. Such runways are located at an altitude and have steep drops at one or both ends.
On Friday night, Puri said that the aircraft “overshot the runway in rainy conditions”, then plunged down a 35-ft slope, before breaking in two. He said a formal inquiry would be carried out by India’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau.
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Meanwhile, an Air India special assistance team has reached Kerala to coordinate relief and counselling for families members on board the aircraft, NDTV reported. It said Air India Chairperson and Managing Director Rajiv Bansal, and Air India Express Chief Executive Officer K Shyam Sundar have already reached Kozhikode.
“The Go Teams and Angels of Air India have reached Calicut for being with the injured passengers as well as with the family members of the injured as well as dead passengers,” Air India Express said in a statement.
The pilots of the aircraft were identified as Wing Commander Deepak Vasant Sathe and Captain Akhilesh Kumar, NDTV reported. Sathe was a decorated former fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force who flew planes for Air India before he went on to Air India Express flights. His co-pilot, Kumar, had been married last year.
Sathe, 59, was awarded the “sword of honour” when he graduated from the Air Force Academy at Dundigal near Hyderabad in June 1981, according to the Hindustan Times. He joined the air force in June 1981 and quit prematurely in June 2003 The former IAF pilot was also an accomplished test pilot.
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retired) condoled Sathe’s death. “This is sad,” he tweeted. “ Sathe was a comrade in arms at the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment STE [IAF’s flight testing establishment] with me. RIP Tester. The call signs of all test pilots have the ‘Tester’ prefix.”
The airport was unsafe: 2011 report
A report on aviation safety submitted to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in 2011, revealed the runway at the Calicut International Airport was unsafe for flight operations due to inadequate safety area along the runway and at the end of it to safeguard against planes skidding off, The Hindu reported.
Safety expert Mohan Ranganathan, who was part of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee, told the newspaper that the down slope at the end of runway 10, on which the accident took place, was very steep. “There is only a 90 metre safety area at the end of the runway, which should be at least 200 metres,” he added. “Similarly, on both sides of the runway there is only 75 metre of safety area, when that should be at least 150 metres.”
In a letter to then Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Naseem Zaidi, Ranganathan had highlighted there had been no effort on part of the Airport Authority of India to rectify the safety infringement. “Have they considered the danger involved?” he asked. “Has the DGCA or airlines laid down any operational restrictions or special procedures?”
He also highlighted that it was important to clean the runway of rubber which gets deposited after every flight. The failure to do so can lead to aircraft losing control, he said.