Crash course

Air travel, it is said, is the safest mode of transportation until it is your plane that crashes. But air crashes rarely happen. When they do occur, they, more often than not, end in tragedies. On Saturday, all but eight passengers and the entire team of crew — in all, 158 people — onboard the Dubai-Mangalore Air India Express IX-812 flight perished as the aircraft failed to make a safe landing at Mangalore International Airport as its faulty touchdown on the runway proved fatal. At this stage, with barely any authentic information available about what happened in the few seconds after touchdown and before the aircraft plunged into a valley at the south end of Mangalore’s table-top runway, we can only speculate about the cause of the disaster.

After every air crash questions are usually raised about the air-worthiness of the aircraft in question. In this case, that question would appear misplaced — nobody, in fact, has so far ventured to raise doubts about the aircraft’s airworthiness. For, the aircraft — Boeing 737-800 should be considered still new. It was inducted into the Air India fleet in January 2008. The other familiar reason routinely attributed for air accidents is ‘pilot error’. By all accounts, the Serbian-born-British citizen commanding the flight was an experienced pilot who had done Mangalore operations several times in the recent past.

However, a different reason is being cited as being a probable cause for the disaster — that the runway is hazardous for landing-take off operations as it is located on a hill top with sudden and steep valleys on three sides. The 8,000 ft-long runway on which the ill-fated aircraft made the touchdown is a new one commissioned four years ago to accommodate medium-size aircraft to operate to and from the airport. A week ago Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel announced in Mangalore that the runway length would be extended by 1,000 ft. It may be argued that the tragedy could have been avoided had this cushion been available to the pilot on Saturday after he apparently failed to land safely within the runway’s touchdown zone, causing the aircraft to overshoot the tarmac and plunge into the valley. The point, however, is no runway would be long enough if the pilot errs or the aircraft encounters serious technical snags during take offs and landing. Aviation safety is based on precision. Therefore, the runway’s topography cannot really be a convincing reason. In the absence of the ‘black box’, the cockpit voice recorder will yield valuable clues on what went horribly wrong Saturday morning.

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