It was a close shave for 241 people, many holidaymakers, when an Air Mauritius plane caught fire after being hit by a bird just as it was taking off from Delhi airport on Thursday.
The pilot applied the brakes to abort the take off and the resulting friction set a wheel afire, said passengers and officials.
<b1>Lucknow’s Rahul Gautam, who was flying with 90 HDFC Standard Life Insurance employees to Mauritius for a holiday, recounted the action: "The plane had already gained high speed, and was slightly airborne, when we saw a bird hit the wheel and get entangled. Our pilot had to apply brakes."
The fire spread to the undercarriage, and passengers, who were panicking by then, were evacuated through the emergency escape chute. Some of them were bruised in the rush to get out.
Gautam said panic spread among the passengers as the plane stated getting hot and they could see fire in the wheels and smoke inside. "The children were crying and the elderly were finding it difficult to get out of the plane. Passengers were scared even after sliding down the escape chute," he said.
The bird hit happened at 2 pm, when the flight (MK 745) was about to take off. "At 2.08 pm the pilot applied brakes to abort the take-off, which seems to have led to overheating of the wheels as the plane was in speed. This resulted in a fire," an airport source said.
The pilot immediately informed the Air Traffic Control and 'full emergency’ was declared at the airport.A rescue team at the airport was pressed into action along with fire tenders and emergency vehicles. The aircraft was taken off the main runway and the flames were doused.
The fire was extinguished at 2.15 pm and the passengers and 11 crewmembers were evacuated through the emergency escape chute by 2.40 pm and transported to the terminal building in coaches, airport operator Delhi International Airport Ltd. (DIAL) said. The aircraft was towed away to a remote bay.
"Had the fire not extinguished in time or the plane had taken off, it would have definitely blown up either on ground or mid-air. Thankfully, the pilot was smart and did the right thing," an official said.
Sudhir Kumar Tripathi, another passenger, said at least 20 people received cuts and bruises. "I saw a flame on the wheels when the pilot announced that the plane had been hit by a bird," he said.
The main runway was blocked and flight operations were severely affected for close to half an hour. The passengers were shifted to a city hotel and the next flight would take off at 6 am on Friday. When HT visited the city office of Air Mauritius, the staff refused to talk and no one was available at the airline's airport office.