Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 September 2020

Kerala plane crash: 'tabletop airport' should never have been used in bad weather, says top safety expert

An investigator told The National he raised the alarm nine years ago after a similar crash killed 158 passengers

A senior aviation safety expert has cautioned against allowing flights to land on a tabletop runway at Kozhikode airport during wet weather conditions.

Capt Mohan Ranganathan, a member of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee in India, said Friday's fatal crash should have been prevented.

An Air India Express Boeing 737 from Dubai to Kerala crash-landed at Kozhikode, formerly Calicut, airport on Friday night.

The plane overshot the airstrip, plunged into an 11-metre gorge and split into two, killing 18 people and injuring more than 100.

“This was a disaster waiting to happen,” Capt Ranganathan told The National.

"Runway 10 in Calicut should never be used in a tailwind and when it’s raining.

This was a disaster waiting to happen. Runway 10 in Calicut should never be used in a tailwind and when it’s raining

Capt Mohan Ranganathan, Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee of India

“If the runway is wet it is positively dangerous, so that is why we had voiced our objections and said, 'If you do not prevent that, you are going to have an accident.' We wrote that in 2011.”

Capt Ranganathan was part of an advisory panel set up by India’s Civil Aviation Ministry after an Air India Express crash at Mangalore airport in May 2010 killed 158 passengers from Dubai.

He described Mangalore airport as "equally dangerous" with a similar runway on a table top, raising the risk of an aircraft plunging into the gorge if it overshot the runway.

Capt Ranganathan said planes larger than a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 320 should not be allowed to land on Runway 10 at all.

“Both Kozhikode and Mangalore are definitely unsuitable for wide-body aircraft, not just in the rains, at any time,” said Capt Ranganathan.

He said no action was taken on the committee’s recommendations.

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India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation had not responded to Capt Ranganathan's comments.

The Civil Aviation Ministry said an investigation was ongoing. There were 184 passengers and six crew on board when it came down.

The pilot requested permission from air-traffic control to land on Runway 10 instead of Runway 28 in Kozhikode, Indian media reported.

Capt Ranganathan said Runway 28 might not have been an option because of reduced visibility with heavy cloud cover.

He said Runway 10 was not flat and had an insufficient safety buffer.

“It’s like an inverted 'V' with a downslope,” Capt Ranganathan said.

“What we found during the audit is that if an aircraft were to reject take-off it would go off the end of the runway, and there is no way the pilot could stop it because of the slope.”

He said the casualties would have been higher if it were a larger plane.

“It would not be 20 to 150 people dying, it will be about 400 people dying in an accident,” Capt Ranganathan said.

More passengers survived in Kozhikode because the wings did not splinter and start a fire.

In the Mangalore crash a decade ago, also in wet conditions, the plane plunged into a forested valley and burst into flames, with firefighters struggling to reach the site.

“This aircraft also would have caught fire if the wings had broken. But since the wings did not break, there was no fuel spilled,” Capt Ranganathan said.

Hundreds queued up outside at least four hospitals in Kozhikode and Mallapuram districts until midnight after the tragic plane crash. Courtesy: Blood Donors Kerala
Hundreds queue outside at least four hospitals in Kozhikode and Mallapuram districts to give blood after the plane crash. Courtesy: Blood Donors Kerala

“In Calicut the drop is only about 30 metres. In Mangalore, the drop was 100 metres The wings broke with the impact and fuel spilt."

Others have called for action to prevent another tragedy.

Dr Azad Moopen, managing director of Aster hospitals in the UAE and India, said the length of the Kozhikode runway was “compromised” and expansion was critical.

Dr Moopen said it was a “miraculous escape” for the passengers.

“Let us not lose any more lives,” he said.

“Calicut Airport has a 9,000-metre tabletop runway, which is not enough for safe landing during inclement weather and poor visibility conditions, especially in the night due to the hilly surroundings.”

Dr Moopen called on state and federal governments to avoid another disaster.

“Political parties and people’s representatives must take this up as top priority, as the government has already decided to acquire the land and the airport authority had agreed to allot the required funds to proceed with runway expansion,” he said.

In the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, sent condolences to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the crash on Friday night.

"You remain in our prayers during these difficult times," Sheikh Mohamed wrote on Twitter.

Updated: August 10, 2020 10:34 AM

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