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Air India pilots were unaware of damage to plane, flew 136 passengers from Trichy to Mumbai

Once the aircraft made a safe but emergency landing in Mumbai, the passengers were flown to Dubai in another plane with a fresh set of crew.

india Updated: Oct 12, 2018 23:16 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, Trichy/Mumbai
The plane was declared fit for operations after inspection at Mumbai airport.
The plane was declared fit for operations after inspection at Mumbai airport.(ANI/Twitter)

More than 130 passengers and crew on board an Air India flight to Dubai had a miraculous escape on Friday when the plane brushed against a 50-feet-high perimeter wall during takeoff from Trichy in Tamil Nadu and flew in a damaged condition for four hours, turning around finally to land in Mumbai.

The underside of the aircraft suffered severe damage when it hit the wall, after one of its tyres first struck equipment used to guide a pilot to land a flight. An expert aware of the extent of the damage said a catastrophe may have resulted had the plane flown on any longer. The entire duration of the flight, including the detour to Mumbai, was four hours.

The Boeing 737 had 130 passengers and six crew members on board. Passengers inside the aircraft were jolted and panicked as the aircraft shook and tossed about, PTI reported from Trichy. The passengers were quietened by assurances by crew that there was nothing to worry about, and the flight proceeded, it said.

“After flight IX611 from Trichy to Dubai took off, it was reported by local airport officials that the aircraft might have come in contact with the perimeter wall. The matter was conveyed to the pilot in command, who reported that aircraft systems were operating normally,” said a spokesperson for Air India Express, the flight’s operator, a subsidiary of national carrier Air India. The aircraft was then diverted to Mumbai.

A Boeing 737 takes off at a speed of 250-290 kilometers per hour, depending on its passenger and fuel load, serving as an indication of the velocity it was travelling at when it brushed against the perimeter wall at Tiruchirappalli International Airport.

According to information from flight tracking website FlightRadar24, the plane had reached its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet and had completed more than half the crossing of the Arabian Sea when it turned around towards Mumbai. The plane was flying at roughly 826 kmph – the typical cruising speed for commercial airliners.

“More parts of the aircraft could have come off had it continued to cruise for a bit longer, endangering the lives of passengers,” said VK Kukar, a former Air India Pilot.

The pilot and the co-pilot have been taken off duty till an investigation by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the aviation regulator, is completed.

Kukar said pilots in such a situation may not necessarily feel the impact or receive a warning from the instrumentation of the plane brushing against or hitting an object.

The alertness of airport workers becomes crucial in such cases. Trichy airport workers found that a part of the perimeter wall had collapsed and antennas for the Instrument Landing System (ILS) broken.

The ILS is a crucial system of sensors and transmitters that are installed in aircraft and at runways which helps planes line up and land, easily the most challenging part of a flight.

Once the ground damage was spotted, air traffic control passed on the message to counterparts in Mumbai as flight IX611 had by then entered the Mumbai airspace. It was then that a message to turn around was relayed to the crew.

“The aircraft was in constant touch with us when it was in our airspace. The pilot was asked to make an emergency landing as a precautionary measure,” a Mumbai Air Traffic Control (ATC) official said.

Kukar said the damage could have been limited to the outer layer. “The pilots would otherwise have gotten warnings if there was any problem in closing the landing gear and putting it back. There have been some incidents globally where planes have flown with a damaged underbelly,” he said. The risk of fire was low because fuel is stored in the wings, he explained.

Friday’s incident comes exactly three weeks after 30 people on a Jet Airways flight were left with injuries following a sudden drop in cabin pressure. The incident apparently took place because the pilots forgot to activate key systems needed to pressurise the cabin.

A member of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau said the manufacturer, Boeing, will be called for an investigation into Friday’s incident and, since it is the first of its kind in India, appropriate safety instructions will be issued once the inquiry is completed.

Civil aviation minister Suresh Prabhu said that he had spoken to senior officials and directed them to conduct a high-level inquiry.

“In a recent review on airline safety, I have ordered to put in place a third-party professional organisation to look into various safety aspects. In order to have continuous attention towards air safety, I have also ordered officials to put in place a regular “safety compliance report” of all airlines”, he said in a series of tweets. “Safety of passengers is of paramount importance for us. We will take all that’s required to put safety on top of aviation agenda. Growth can’t be at the expense of safety,” he added.

(With inputs from HTC in Mumbai)

First Published: Oct 12, 2018 08:46 IST

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