Kozhikode’s tabletop runway risky for landing, officials warned 10 years ago

The safety concerns were first raised following the 2010 Air India Express crash in Mangalore that killed 160 people on board.
The report by Air marshal BN Gokhale had noted tabletop airports require extra skill and caution while carrying out flight operations.(HT Photo)
The report by Air marshal BN Gokhale had noted tabletop airports require extra skill and caution while carrying out flight operations.(HT Photo)
Updated on Aug 08, 2020 04:59 PM IST
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Hndustan Times, New Delhi | ByAnisha Dutta | Edited by Ashutosh Tripathi

The tragic accident in Kerala last evening when a plane attempting to land amid heavy tailwinds and rain on the table-top runway at the Kozhikode airport has once again shone light on the safety concerns over flight operations at such runways in the country. Eighteen people, including two pilots, were killed in the accident.

The safety concerns were first raised following the 2010 Air India Express crash in Mangalore that killed 160 people on board. A court of enquiry report by a former Indian Air Force chief had warned of the hazards of overshooting the paved surface during take-off.

ALSO WATCH | Kerala plane crash ‘murder, not accident’: Expert who flagged safety issues

The Air India Express flight crash on Friday brings back the memories of the 2010 air crash that too occurred after the plane overshot the runway at the table-top airport in Mangalore.

The report by Air marshal BN Gokhale had noted tabletop airports require extra skill and caution while carrying out flight operations. The hazard of ‘undershooting’ and ‘overshooting’, in particular, can lead to grave situations, as was the case in the Mangalore accident.

The so-called tabletop airport has limited space at the ends of the runway, and several international airlines had stopped flying bigger aircraft into Kozhikode due to safety issues over the length of the runway.

“While the length of the runway 24/06 is adequate for operations by aircraft such as Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800, the downward slope at end of R/W 24 leading into hill slope is not recommended if one is to consider the hazards of overshooting the paved surface during takeoff or landing. There is a concrete structure at the end of R/W 24, which cannot be classified as obstruction as per ICAO Annexure-14, since it is below the approach and take off funnel,” the report had said.

“There are three tabletop airports in India from where scheduled flights operate. These are Mangalore, Kozhikode and Lengpui. Because of the undulating terrain and constraints of space, these airfields require extra skill and caution while carrying out flight operations. The hazard of undershooting and overshooting, in particular, can lead to grave situations, as was the case in this accident. These table-top runways also have a problem of access roads around the airfield, which may need to be used in case of aircraft accidents,” it added.

The narrow and winding roads can delay and hinder the rescue operations, the report had said.

The Air India Express flight with 190 on board overshot and fell 50 metres off the end of the runway at the Kozhikode airport in treacherous conditions on Friday, breaking into two - making it one of the deadliest commercial aviation disasters in the country in nearly 10 years.

The crash occurred around 7.40pm, when it was raining. It bears eerie similarity to the 2010 Mangalore airport crash when a plane, also an Air India Express Boeing 737, overshot a table-top runway and crashed nose-first into the ground.

Aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said it was raining heavily when pilots of the Boeing 737 plane from Dubai tried to land. The regulator said after landing at Runway 10, the plane continued running till the end of the runway and fell into the valley and broke into two portions. “The visibility was 2,000 meters amid heavy rain, after landing at runway 10 and it overshot the runway and broke down in two pieces,” a DGCA official said.

According to a playback on flight-tracking website FlightRadar24, the plane circled the airport twice before attempting to land. In its second instance, it aborted the attempt with 2,000 feet to go before the crash landing. The civil aviation ministry’s accident investigation division Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) will conduct a detailed investigation into the Air India Express flight crash at Kozhikode airport in Kerala.

“An Air India Express flight took off around 0200 hours from Delhi to Kozhikode carrying investigating officers from DGCA and AAIB, CEO of Air India express and other officials of AI and AIE,” said AAIB.

“A second aircraft took off from Mumbai to Kozhikode around 0600hrs in the morning carrying Angels of Air India and GO employees who will coordinate and liaise with various agencies and provide support and assist families of those affected in this incident,” the national transporter had said in a statement.

The recovery of Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) will help piece together what happened during the last moments of the flight. Both have since been recovered, said aviation minister Hardeep Puri this morning.

According to Robert A Clifford, lead counsel in the case against Boeing for the last major Boeing crash -- the 737 Max 8 crash in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019 -- and senior partner of Clifford Law Offices, Chicago, the investigation into what caused today’s Air India crash will likely focus on the plane itself and pilot error.

“Early indications point to pilot error. The weather being involved probably speaks to pilot flight error, but the aircraft’s safety systems could have played a role. Investigators will need to evaluate the flight data recorder, cockpit voice recorder, and other devices, along with expert evaluation, to determine what happened,” he said.

The 2010 report had cautioned of operations at such ‘critical airfields’.

The DGCA has classified certain airfields as critical which need special qualification for the flight crew to undertake operations. The criteria for classifying airfields as critical are based on various factors such as terrain, length of runway, predominance of inclement weather etc.

“There are 11 such airfields, which include the table-top runways of Mangalore, Kozhikode and Lengpui. In addition, airfields such as Patna, Jammu, Leh, Port Blair, etc also qualify as ‘critical airfields’. The operators can add some more airfields as critical, in case additional caution needs to be exercised during operations. As per SOP of Air India Express, three airfields at Mangalore, Kozhikode and Pune qualify as ‘critical airfields’. These airfields are, therefore, cleared for operations by experienced flight crew and take off and landings have to be carried out by the pilot in command (PIC) only,” said the report.

Following the Mangalore crash, the court of Inquiry recommended setting up of an independent Indian Civil Aviation Safety Board (ICASB) urgently in view of rapid growth of aviation in the country. Such independent safety organisations have been set up in the USA, UK, Canada, France and Indonesia to name a few.

The ICASB will focus on all flight safety related issues to suggest proactive measures, to minimise accidents and incidents, it had said.

Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC) had also warned the authorities 10 years back that Kozhikode runway was very risky for landing during rains and harsh weather conditions.

In a letter addressed to the chairman of Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC) and civil aviation secretary, CASAC member Captain Mohan Ranganathan had pointed that the Runway 10 of the Kozhikode airport could be risky for landing in tailwind conditions in rain.

“I understand that Runway 10 ILS is being used on a trial basis at Calicut. Some of the crew are accepting even VOR approach on Runway 10. The reason is the lower minima than Runway 28. However, all the flights that land on Runway 10 in tailwind conditions in rain, are endangering the lives of all on board,” he had said.

He also said that the airport does not have the minimum Runway End Safety Area (RESA)

“The runway strip is just half the minimum width laid down in ICAO Annex 14. This fact was known to the DGCA team that has been conducting inspections and safety assessments during the past several years. Have they considered the danger involved? Has the DGCA or the airlines laid down any operational restrictions or special procedures?” he had written.

He also added that the Air India Express accident in Mangalore should have alerted the Airport Authority to make the runway conditions safe. “It is a dangerous situation, especially in wet conditions. Runway 10 approaches should not be permitted in view of the lack of RESA and the terrain beyond the end of the runway. RATIO of 240m should be immediately introduced and the runway length has to be reduced to make the operations safe,” he had said.

The Boeing 737 jet, on a Vande Bharat mission as flight AIX 1344 from Dubai, was bringing in Indians who were stranded abroad due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In all there were 174 adult passengers on board, 10 infants, two pilots, and four crew members.

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