‘Technical glitch or pilot’s error?’: Preliminary report of PIA plane crash raises doubts

Updated on May 24, 2020 08:05 PM IST

Pakistani investigators are trying to find out if the crash of the national flag carrier’s flight PK-8303 is attributable to a pilot error or a technical glitch, with new leads raising fresh questions over the circumstances of the incident, Geo News reported.

Security personnel stand beside the wreckage of a plane at the site after a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in a residential area days before, in Karachi on May 24, 2020.(AFP)
Security personnel stand beside the wreckage of a plane at the site after a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in a residential area days before, in Karachi on May 24, 2020.(AFP)
Karachi | ByPress Trust of India

A preliminary report on the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) plane crash, in which 97 people were killed, has raised serious questions about the pilot’s handling of the aircraft and what prevented the crew in the cockpit from informing the air traffic controllers about the troubles.

Pakistani investigators are trying to find out if the crash of the national flag carrier’s flight PK-8303 is attributable to a pilot error or a technical glitch, with new leads raising fresh questions over the circumstances of the incident, Geo News reported.

According to the report, prepared by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Airbus A-320’s engines had scraped the runway thrice on the pilot’s first attempt to land, causing friction and sparks recorded by the experts.

After the third impact, the pilot took the aircraft off into the air again, which officials found very strange as the crew in the cockpit did not inform the Air Traffic Control (ATC) at the Jinnah International Airport of any problem with the landing gear, The News International quoted CAA sources as saying.

Since automated emergency systems within the aircraft go off in case of any emergency, and the loud alarms and warnings are impossible to ignore, there was no indication from the pilot to the ATC that something was amiss, it said.

When the aircraft scraped the ground on the first failed attempt at landing, the engine’s oil tank and fuel pump may have been damaged and started to leak, preventing the pilot from achieving the required thrust and speed to raise the aircraft to safety, the report said.

The pilot made a decision “on his own” to undertake a “go-around” after he failed to land the first time. It was only during the go-around that the ATC was informed that landing gear was not deploying, it said.

“The pilot was directed by the air traffic controller to take the aircraft to 3,000 feet, but he managed only 1,800. When the cockpit was reminded to go for the 3,000 feet level, the first officer said ‘we are trying’,” the report said.

Experts said that the failure to achieve the directed height indicates that the engines were not responding. The aircraft, thereafter, tilted and crashed suddenly.

“The plane descended too fast, almost plunged,” sources familiar with the report said.

The investigators were trying to establish why the pilots not once informed the ATC of any emergency, malfunction, engine failure or fire despite the visible problems the aircraft was facing, the report said, adding that it is rare to have so many technical problems at the same time.

The ATC’s conduct is also being probed.

The report added that at this point, there are more questions than answers with the most serious being why and how the alarm systems inside the cockpit failed to warn the pilots of an impending emergency.

PIA chief executive officer Arshad Malik has said that the black box of the plane has been handed over to the investigation team.

The team, headed by Air Commodore Muhammad Usman Ghani, President of the Aircraft Accident and Investigation Board, is expected to submit a full report in about three months.

According to the PIA’s engineering and maintenance department, the last check of the plane was done on March 21 this year and it had flown from Muscat to Lahore a day before the crash.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pakistan government had allowed the limited domestic flight operations from five major airports — Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta — from May 16.

After the plane tragedy, the PIA has called off its domestic operation.

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