An 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 and killing at least 20 people -- including both the pilot and the co-pilot -- in what is the deadliest commercial aviation disaster in the country in nearly 10 years.
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.
The crash occurred around 7:40pm, when it was raining, and the incident bore striking similarity to the 2010 Mangalore airport crash when a plane, also an Air India Express Boeing 737, overshot a tabletop runway and crashed nose-first into the ground – the last time there were as many or more people killed in a plane crash.
"It was a Dubai to Kozhikode Air India Express flight. It made an over-speeding landing, overshot the runway, and fell into a valley. The aircraft has broken into two parts but it is being reported that it has not caught fire, which increases chances of rescue. Rescue teams are on spot and we are yet to get final figures on casualties," said Arun Kumar, chief of directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA).
In all there were 174 adult passengers on board, 10 infants, two pilots, and four crew members. Flight records reviewed by HT showed that several of the passengers cited job loss as the reason for returning to the country.
"It was raining heavily. The pilot had given a warning before landing saying the weather was really bad. He tried for safe landing twice but lost control. The aircraft shot off the runway and skidded off and it broke into two pieces. It was a miraculous escape for many," said V Ibrahim, among the passengers who survived with minor injuries.
Among the 20 casualties were four children, officials said.
"We are in touch with local authorities... Relief teams from Air India and AAI are being immediately dispatched from Delhi and Mumbai. All efforts being made to help passengers. A formal enquiry will be conducted by Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB)," civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri.
"I have asked minister for local self government AC Moideen to rush to the airport and coordinate rescue efforts. It is another shocking incident," said chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on a day when the state was also hit by a landslide that killed 15 people.
The fatalities include the flight's commander Deepak V Sathe, a former Air Force Pilot, and co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar. Rescue personnel were on the scene and more than 150 people were taken to the hospital.
"We regret that there has been an incident regarding our aircraft," Air India Express said in a statement. Help centers were being set up in Sharjah and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
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 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.
"Both Mangalore and Calicut airport do not have the required space on either side of the runway for safe landing. The Calicut runway does not have mandatory 155m side strip and there is a 70m drop at either end. We at the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council had warned the authorities ten years back that the runway is very risky for landing during rains," said aviation safety consultant Mohan Ranganathan, a former instructor pilot of Boeing 737 who specialised in wet runway operations training.
"The visibility was 2,000 metres (which is not considered to be bad) along with heavy rains. Calicut is a table top airport like Mangalore but at a lower height. The gorge at the end is not very deep and has a road going through it. Landing an aircraft is all about managing the energy of aircraft. The atmospherics play a major part," said a senior air traffic controller in Mumbai, asking not to be named.
"Head winds and good runway friction conditions help a pilot in managing the energy so that the aircraft is brought to a stop from landing speeds of 250 km per hour. When atmospherics are not in favour then a mishap can happen, as it has in this case. But it means the pilot would sight the runway only about a minute before landing so it's quite challenging as well," this person added.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and several other opposition leaders offered their condolences over the incident.