‘All we know is touchdown was late’: DGCA chief on Kerala plane crash

Directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) chief Arun Kumar said that the actual investigation is on.
Mangled remains of an Air India Express flight, en route from Dubai, after it skidded off the runway while landing on Friday night, at Karippur in Kozhikode on August 08, 2020.(PTI Photo)
Mangled remains of an Air India Express flight, en route from Dubai, after it skidded off the runway while landing on Friday night, at Karippur in Kozhikode on August 08, 2020.(PTI Photo)
Updated on Aug 10, 2020 06:07 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | BySunetra Choudhury

Directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) chief Arun Kumar said the tabletop runway at Calicut Airport, where an Air India Express plane crashed killing 18 people including both pilots on Friday, was long enough for the aircraft, but a late touchdown may have caused the plane to overshoot the runway. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What do we know about what happened with the Air India Express flight that crash-landed?

We don’t know much, the actual investigation is on. They {investigators} have got the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder so they have to open them and they have to study the transcripts and also the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) transcripts which they have obtained. All we know at this point of time is that the touchdown was late. That is the ATC information, more than 3,000 feet. Actually, if it was 3,000 feet, 4,000 {feet} or 2,000 {feet) -- that will come out once everything is decoded. It was a 9,000 feet runway, which is a fairly long runway as I have been saying all along. It’s not a small runway, for example like Patna which is just 6,000 feet. It is a Code D runway and this is a Code C aircraft and the grading is like B, C, D where D is bigger to C. So under the circumstances, it is fit enough or more than fit enough for a Code C aircraft.

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So you are saying length of the runway was big enough?

This runway was fit enough for bigger aircraft, so a smaller type of aircraft cannot complain of the length of the runway. So if you touch down late on any runway, suppose it’s a 12,000 feet runway, and you touchdown at 8,000 feet, then you can have problems.

Can you explain how that happens?

We can only say that it was a late touchdown and obviously the aircraft has skidded and gone beyond the runway and the safety area. That is also a big rectangle- -240 by 90 square metres -- in all. The aircraft should have stopped there but it has gone beyond that. Fortunately for us, it has not gone far beyond, just 10 feet ahead. With the impact, it has broken into three parts. It could have gone even further, it could have been worse. All these facts, the real truth will come out once the investigation is done by AAIB (Air Accidents Investigating Branch) as under the international civil aviation organisation structure, it has to be an independent body carrying out the investigation. They can find fault with the DGCA too or with airport operator.

Who is heading that?

Mr Aurobindo Handa, an air force officer who is currently based out of India. He’s a joint secretary rank officer who is heading that bureau.

You say that it isn’t a small runway but some experts have pointed out the problem with Calicut was that as a tabletop, there were problems?

You don’t do away with tabletop runways. There are tabletop runways across the world. I reiterate and repeat, it is not an Indian innovation. Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu is also a tabletop, they haven’t closed it down. Similiarly, in the US or Europe, all over the world, there are tabletop runways. So what do you do with them? You design flight procedures to navigate your aircraft on these runways. These are very well prescribed and defined procedures. So this isn’t an issue and again 9,000 feet is a fairly long runway.

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Some experts have come forward and said that they have pointed out issues in 2010 and 2011; they pointed out problems with the airport to the DGCA. I know you weren’t in DGCA then but you must have read up on them.

Yes, I have. The simple point is that at that time when the investigation and the inquiry committee report came, the runway and safety area was not adequate. One of their recommendations was to make these areas appropriate. For that, the dimensions were 240X90 metres. The airport authority, after due deliberations, carved out this safety area. That was one, and secondly, the pavement classification of the runway for it take a heavy aircraft, the strength of the runway to take the load, was also complied with according to the recommendation. All the recommendations that were there have been complied with and after that the airport has been functioning for the last 14 years. In 2006, it was only a 6,000 feet runway, now it is 9,000 feet after acquisition of land and then it was declared an international airport.

So all the recommendations that were given by the experts were incorporated?

Most of them. Only some weren’t for various reasons. For example, one recommendation was to have an arrester, which means a soft ground on which the aircraft could stop. That was a solution given when you don’t have a runway safety area but since that was made, there was no need for an arrester and that’s why it was dropped.

Do we know anything new from the voice recorder or from the black box?

No, I am not the right person. The investigator will be going through them. They will study each aspect and come out with the findings.

What could be the possible reason for a late touchdown?

No idea. Let’s wait for the evidence to tell us.

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