Knew lives were at stake: Officer who helped avert tragedy at Mumbai airport
“For some reason, I kept watching the plane as it was speeding on the runway,” recalled Ravi Kanth Avala, a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) head constable who averted a major tragedy by spotting a technical malfunction in an air ambulance, at the Nagpur airport late on Thursday.
The plane carrying a total of five people, including a patient and a doctor, belly-landed under full emergency protocols at the Mumbai airport on Thursday night without any casualties.
The air ambulance--a chartered flight with registration VT-JIL--took off from Bagdogra for Mumbai with five people on board, but had a stopover at Nagpur for re-fuelling around 2.30 am.
Avala was deployed at the watchtower near the runway of the Nagpur airport. Around 5.50pm, when the Beechcraft King Air C90 plane was taking off, Avala noticed that its rear wheel “fell off in the air”. “The moment it took off, the rear left wheel of the plane broke and got separated. The speed of the aircraft was such that the detached wheel went rolling at least half a kilometre ahead, towards the left of the runway, before it came to halt. The plane, however, took off, unaffected,” said Avala.
Sensing the gravity of the incident, the 48-year-old head constable immediately rushed towards the runway, barely 300 metres from watchtower number 12, and alerted the Nagpur SOCC (security operational control centre), which in turn reported the matter to the air traffic control (ATC).
“I went to the spot where the wheel fell. Since it was a charter jet, I was sure it would land somewhere within 2-3 hours maximum. I also knew that such planes have a capacity of 7-8 passengers and therefore lives are at stake. At that time I didn’t know that it’s an air ambulance carrying a Covid-19 patient. Thinking that it can lead to a fatal accident upon landing, I immediately reported the matter to my superiors who further alerted the authorities concerned,” Avala said.
“The Nagpur ATC quickly informed the pilot of the aircraft and arrangements were made at Mumbai airport for safe landing,” the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) said in a statement.
The plane landed on a foamed runway at the Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport at about 9:09 pm on Thursday and rescue authorities evacuated those on board.
“Had head constable Avala not shown alertness, a major tragedy could have occurred during the landing of the aircraft..,” the CISF statement said.
On Friday, the CISF announced a cash reward of ₹10,000, the top force honour of a DG commendation disc and certificate for Avala.
Avala said he feels fortunate to have saved a tragedy from unfolding. “My seniors and colleagues appreciate my quick reaction. My alertness and promptness was lauded. My family members, my wife and children are also proud of me,” said Avala, who has been posted at Nagpur airport since 2017.
Meanwhile, senior officials at the Airport Authority of India said that after learning about absence of rear left wheel, the pilot requested the ATC to get in touch with the aircraft type’s (C-90) expert from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to figure out the best possible procedure to be followed in the situation.
“The checklist with the pilot did not state his course of action needed, in case one of the rear wheels went missing,” claimed an AAI official. “Though the pilot had communicated to go for belly landing, he shared a contact of an expert for C-90 aircraft and asked the on-duty controllers to reconfirm the course of action needed,” the officer added. It was then that the air traffic controllers (ATCos) got in touch with two experts from the DGCA to get their views. The experts agreed and asked the ATCos to go ahead with the belly landing.
Mohan Ranganathan, aviation safety expert and former instructor pilot of Boeing 737 said, “Absence of standard operating procedure on partial landing gear failure, is a very serious lapse on the DGCA’s part.”
DGCA director general Arun Kumar said that investigation will reveal the facts. “We would not like to speculate,” he added.
The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) however confirmed that they have taken over the investigation. “The AAIB is conducting an investigation as per Aircraft (Investigation of Accidents and Incidents) Rules, 2017 into the causes of the occurrence,” read AAIB’s reply to the email sent by the paper.
An Airports Authority of India official said the aircraft luckily had enough fuel to stay in the air while the authorities and the pilot prepped for a belly landing. “This gave us a good time to consider all possibilities and take a call,” the official who was on duty on Thursday evening said.
AAI officials said that the Nagpur ATC informed the Mumbai ATC about the plane’s missing wheel around 6.45pm.
“The pilot was unaware of the situation until the Mumbai ATC got in touch with Capt Kesari Singh to inform him about it. However, none of us knew which wheel of the aircraft was detached,” said the AAI official quoted earlier.
Capt Singh suggested ‘low pass’ over the runway to identify which wheel had fallen off, a reference to the aircraft flying at a height of 50m over the runway. “The pilot was cleared to conduct the ‘low pass’ immediately at around 6.45pm when the aircraft was 200Nm away from Mumbai,” said a controller at Mumbai.
The low pass, carried out at around 7.30pm, led the Mumbai ATC and fire department officials to figure that the aircraft’s rear left wheel was missing.
A Delhi-based AAI official explained that the absence of either of the two rear wheels is riskier than any issue with the nose wheel. “This is because the two rear wheels come in contact with the runway first, followed by the nose wheel.”
“ATCos were asked to go ahead with belly landing after which the airport operator was contacted and asked to prepare for foam-based landing. Arranging for foam and making it available at the touchdown point of runway 27 took some time,” said a senior AAI official in Mumbai.
“At first, when the arrangement of foaming the runway was taking time, we were even thinking on the lines of sending the aircraft back to Nagpur, however, by then the airport operator confirmed that foam was being arranged,” the official added.
The aircraft touched down safely at 9.09pm after which the fire department officials took over and handled the situation so that the aircraft did not catch fire. Though the aircraft suffered substantial damage, there were no injuries. The mid-aged male patient, who was one of the passengers was being treated for Covid-19, was rushed to Nanavati hospital. A hospital official said the patient is on oxygen support, but he is conscious and stable.