Pilot error caused crash of LuLu Group MD’s copter in Kerala: DGCA report

By Jacob K Philip

A chain of unusual and erroneous actions taken by the pilots caused the crash of a helicopter last year in India that was carrying M. A. Yousuf Ali, the chairman of UAE-headquartered multinational company Lulu Group, says the report of an investigation ordered by the DGCA, India’s aviation regulator.

Unlike the media widely reported that time, the three year old Agusta Westland AW109SP helicopter was not making an emergency landing but was actually falling into a swamp at Panangadu, near Kochi, in the south Indian state of Kerala, as per the investigation report.

The incident occurred on April 11, 2021 a few minutes before 9am at Panangadu. The copter, that had taken-off from a helipad at ‘Y Mansion”, the residence of Yousuf Ali, was heading to land on the roof-top helipad of ‘Lakeshore’, a private hospital. The aerial distance to the hospital from Yousuf Ali’s residence was just 3.7km and the total flying time was estimated to be 5 minutes. While the copter was in the approach stage to land on the Lakeshore helipad, it fell into the open swamp from a height of about 300ft. Upon falling, the helicopter partially sunk into the soft mud, with dirt water entering the cockpit by up to 2 feet. Engines were shut down and all the occupants vacated the helicopter by standard exit and were transported to nearby hospital. There was no injury to any of the occupants on board, and there was no post incident smoke or fire.

VT-YMA after the crash
The helicopter after the crash.

Though the pilots later said they had made a forced landing due to loss of engine power after experiencing a sudden drop in altitude, the DGCA report says there were nothing wrong with any of the systems of the helicopter including the engine. Also, the pilots had made no landing – forced or otherwise.

It was a series of actions by the pilots right from the taking off of the machine, that culminated in the crash that April morning, concludes the report.

To start with, when the helicopter took of from the ‘Y Mansion’,  at Chilavannoor, Kochi, the pilots activated ‘Engine torque limiter function’ of the copter. This function limits the torque (power) produced by the engine to 220 % instead of its maximum capability of 324%. Why this limit was set is not clear.

Secondly, when it was time for the copter to take a left turn to align with the roof-top helipad of the Lakeshore hospital, the pilot increased the pitch of the craft (raised the nose) to an unusual high value of about 15 degrees. Though with the nose up, the engines needed more power to maintain the speed, that was never given. As a result the speed was reduced to 40 kts from 80kts and the copter began to descend rapidly. Three seconds after the pitch was increased to 15, it again was raised to 21 degrees, again unusually, by the pilot. As a result the the fall became quicker at 2000ft/minute and the horizontal speed became almost zero. On realizing the craft was falling, the pilots tried to increase the engine power, so as to climb up. But because of the ‘Engine torque limiter function’ they had earlier switched on, the fuel supply to the engine got reduced after the power reached the 220%. Less fuel means less power and the pilots could not climb up from the 300ft altitude there found themselves in and the helicopter fell to the ground within seconds.

flight path- VT YMA
The flight path of the helicopter – Reproduced from the DGCA report

The report explains that, because of the actions of setting a limit to the engine power and then increasing the pitch attitude, the helicopter also had entered into a non-recoverable stage called ‘Vortex Ring State (VRS).’ With VRS setting in, the lift produced by the rotor is massively reduced and the rate of descent of the helicopter is increased accordingly. By pulling on the collective, the effect is amplified. The VRS can be ended only by switching to autorotation or by taking up horizontal speed. But at Panangad that morning, the speed was actually getting reduced to half of the normal speed, seconds before the crash.

The DGCA report concludes that the erroneous actions taken by the pilots resulted in the crash was also because of the loss of situational awareness and not sticking to the standard operational procedures.

While examining the cockpit voice recorder, the investigators found that the voices in the cockpit were overlapped by the conversations among the passengers in the cabin. It was because the cockpit was not isolated from the cabin, even during the critical stages of the flight. The reason why the pilots lost the situational awareness can be these distractions from the cabin. Though the well experienced pilots were familiar with the short route, they failed to realise for some seconds that the copter was flying too low. Also, the first Officer (who was acting as the ‘pilot monitoring’) failed to monitor flight parameters during the critical phase of flight. It was only when the copter reached the altitude as low as 300ft, that pilot in command realised the gravity of the situation. Though he immediately increased the power to go up, because their own previous action of switching the ‘Engine torque limiter function’ on, the power refused to go up after it reached 220% and the fuel supply to the engine too got reduced. The rotor speed was dropped because of this and even the the automated warning ‘ROTOR LOW’ was sounded. By then the copter had got entangled in the irrecoverable Vortex Ring State and there was nothing that could have done but to braze for the crash.
And the helicopter at that moment happened to be above a marshy land was just providential. Otherwise the crash would have been real disastrous.
The investigators also have pointed out that the pilots in this flight (and in their previous flights too) were carrying out cockpit checks communicating with ‘gestures’. Because the procedure of ‘challenge and response’ was not carried out as per the SOP, the chances are high that crucial parameters of the flight was overlooked.

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Diminishing Returns: Calculated Misery in Air Travel

Dr. Binoy Kampmark

If there comes a point when people will decide not to fly, the issue may well be less to do with any moral or ethical issue with climate change than the fact that commercial flights have become atrocious. They are naked money-making concerns with diminishing returns on quality. The key factor that plays out here is what economists like to term inelastic demand. Prices can be raised; service quality can be reduced, but customers will keep coming. The demand remains, even if the supply leaves much to be desired.

The phenomenon is distinct over the long-haul carriers, which have, at least until recently, been spared the stripping phenomenon. Singapore Airlines, which prides itself for an almost aristocratic bearing towards its customers, proved skimp its Melbourne to Singapore leg. An insulting sampling of “toasties” was offered as a starter, a culinary outrage that did not go unnoticed. Indian passengers who had selected special meals in advance were on the money; pungent curries and dhal filled the cabin as this ridiculous excuse of a meal was handed out to customers. A few desperate, and disgusted punters asked the flight attendants if there were spare vegetarian options.

Budget airlines may have something to explain in this regard. The revolution of the cheap fare came with the reduction of expectations. No frills travel came with a certain contempt on the part of the service providers: food and drink would no longer be gratis; seat allocations would have to be purchased in advance and check-in or carry-on luggage would have to be paid for. A turning point was Dublin-based Ryanair’s attempt to go easy on toilet numbers – one per aircraft – and charge customers for their use. As the company’s penny-pinching CEO Michael O’Leary said at the time, “We rarely use all three toilets on board our aircraft anyway.” Bladders be damned.

Instead of aspiring to a higher level of service, the traditionalists have voted to go down a notch or three. What budget airlines do badly, we can do worse. The law of diminishing returns is pushing all air travel carriers downwards in what has been seen to be an exercise of “calculated misery”. The experience is appalling and unpleasant, but need not necessarily be intolerable. The result is a curious revision of the term “upgrade”. As Alex Abad-Santos laments in Vox, passengers upgrade their seats, not to get a more spectacular service or experience, but “to avoid hell.”

Managing such misery is hardly original, though Tim Wu of Columbia Law School can be credited for giving a good overview of it when writing in 2014 for The New Yorker. “Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs to be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as ‘calculated misery’. Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.”

Nothing says such suffering than crammed economy seats on a long-haul flight. Shoulders and arms are jammed; legs can barely move. The trend was such that Bill McGee, a writer with more than a passing acquaintance with the airline industry, would note, referring to the United States, that the most spacious economy seats “you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Things are not much better in terms of the European market. Mediocrity mixes with indifference, even on flights which are half-full. A flight from London Heathrow to Copenhagen with Scandinavian Airlines was characterised by a certain snooty indifference on the part of the flight attendants. Much babbling was taking place in Finnish – why would you want to assist passengers? Little by way of interest in the customers was afforded. Curt instructions were issued; requests for coffee were received with glacial stares. Naturally, to receive a meal and drink that wasn’t water that had seen better days required forking out of the plastic fantastic. Gone are the days when international airlines behaved as such, wishing to make matters decent, comfortable and even pleasantly bearable; the European air space finds itself populated by the stingy and the tight-belted.

Commercial airlines from SAS to Singapore Airlines have taken whole sheafs of extortion from the budget airline book of making customers pay for selecting seats. The stress here is budget service at caviar prices. This cheeky form of thieving imposes a cost on the act of jumping the queue for a better place on the flight. And this is not all. You book a ticket with a flight, only to find at the airport that you had purchased a “light” version, meaning that you have to pay for carryon luggage.

High time for a customer revolt, but the industry is distinctly programmed. Even when airlines have been well disposed to their customers, such as JetBlue, the corporate monsters of Wall Street have howled. It’s bad form to provide decent service within reasonable expectations. Efficiency, and filling the seats, is what matters, whatever the quality. Fee-free services, being conscious of the brand and a “customer-focussed” approach was simply not on. Eventually, JetBlue caved in and joined the market of calculated misery.

 Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com
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Airports’ privatization: CIAL not qualified to bid for Trivandrum

By Jacob K Philip

The move to privatize the second batch of airports in India has evoked varying responses from the public and the stake holders. Though it seems the Airports Authority of India (AAI) top brass is all for it, the staff of the Mini Ratna company have made it pretty clear that they are dead against selling out the profitable airports and are already in the warpath.
But the most interesting response seems to be that of the Government of Kerala. To prevent the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport ending up in private hands, the govt has decided to take an extraordinary step – to participate in the competitive bidding to run the airport.
Reports are already allover the media that the Government has authorized Cochin International Airports Ltd (CIAL), the company that had set up and runs the Kochi International Airport in PPP mode, to bid for the right to run the state capital airport. And quoting state government officials and CIAL staff, the media reports assert that CIAL qualifies to bid, as per the criteria enlisted in the Request for Proposal (RFP) released by AAI.

But a careful study of the RFP makes it abundantly clear that CIAL does not have the PQs (Pre-Qualifications), at least for the time being.

Here is why:

Though all the media reports say CIAL qualifies, because the company has the minimum net-worth stipulated in the RFP, that is Rs 10,000 million (1000 crore), there still is one more PQ to meet.

See how the RFP describes this “Technical Qualification” (One may wonder why AAI preferred to call it technical when it too is all about finance):

For demonstrating technical capacity and experience (“Technical Capacity”), the Bidder shall over the past 7 (seven) financial years preceding the Bid Due Date have:
(i) paid for, or received payments for, construction of Eligible Projects; and/or
(ii) paid for development of Eligible Project(s); and/or
(iii) collected and appropriated revenues from Eligible Project(s),

such that the above amount is equal to or more than:
(i) 100% (one hundred percent) of Rs. 3500,00,00,000 (Rupees Three Thousand Five Hundred Crore) in case of 1 (one) Eligible Project; or
(ii) 50% (fifty percent) of Rs. 3500,00,00,000 (Rupees Three Thousand Five Hundred Crore) in case of 2 (two) Eligible Projects; or
(iii) 40% (forty percent) of Rs. 3500,00,00,000 (Rupees Three Thousand Five Hundred Crore) in case of 3 (three) Eligible Projects.

This means, for CIAL to qualify, the total revenue they have collected from the airport business during the past seven years must be more than or equal to 35000 million (3500 crores) Rupees.

But CIAL could earn only Rs. 2923.03 crores during this period, as per their annual reports:

  • 2017-18    553.42
  • 2016-17    487.28
  • 2015-16    524.53
  • 2014-15    413.96
  • 2013-14    361.39
  • 2012-13   306.50
  • 2011-12    275.95

But there still was a way out.

CIAL has five subsidiary companies in which it has 99% share holding. They can very well apply together. These are the companies:

  1. Cochin International Aviation Services Ltd
  2. CIAL infrastructure Ltd
  3.  Air Kerala International Services Ltd
  4. CIAL Dutyfree and Retail Services Ltd
  5. Kerala waterways and Infrastructure Ltd

Of these, only 1, 2 and 4 generate income.

CIAL’s annual reports give the combined income of CIAL and these 3 companies for the past four years. (It seems those companies generated nil or negligible revenue before that period) .

So the revised figures for seven years look like this:

  • 2017-18    701.13
  • 2016-17    592.65
  • 2015-16    539.38
  • 2014-15    423.53
  • 2013-14   361.39
  • 2012-13   306.50
  • 2011-12   275.95

Now the total is 3200.53 crores – but still Rs.299.47 crore less than the required magical figure of 3500 crores.

But even if the amount had reached 3500, there still was another obstacle.

Read this clause:

(i) 100% (one hundred percent) of Rs. 3500,00,00,000 (Rupees Three Thousand Five Hundred Crore) in case of 1 (one) Eligible Project; or
(ii) 50% (fifty percent) of Rs. 3500,00,00,000 (Rupees Three Thousand Five Hundred Crore) in case of 2 (two) Eligible Projects; or
(iii) 40% (forty percent) of Rs. 3500,00,00,000 (Rupees Three Thousand Five Hundred Crore) in case of 3 (three) Eligible Projects.

This means, for the revenue from the businesses from the affiliate companies to add, they must be at least Rs. 1400 crore (40% of 3500) each. But none of the three sub-companies of CIAL meets that criteria.

So the answer is definite – if the figures given the annual reports of CIAL can be believed,  the company simply doesn’t qualify.

But it still is not the end of the road.

As a bidder of good standing, CIAL indeed can apply for a relaxation in PQs. It is all up to AAI -they can lower the limits any time.

And if Kerala Govt indeed is serious about the bid, they should be convincing the AAI to do that, instead of leaking incorrect info to the media, hoping that will boost their chances.

(Jacob K Philip is a Doha based aviation analyst. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)
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Air India-Vistara near miss: Lack of aviation awareness triggers blame games

By OV Maxis
Deputy General Manager (ATC)
Airports Authority of India
Going  through the reports of the February 7th Air India-Vistara air-prox incident, it can be seen that that the Area Controller at Mumbai had descended UK997, Delhi-Pune Vistara flight to 29000ft and had given permission to AI631 Delhi-Mumbai Air India flight  to climb only up to 27000ft to keep them vertically separated enough. What made the Vistara pilot to descent below the cleared level is still not evident. As the matter is under investigation it will be inappropriate to draw inferences. However, a listening error on the part of the pilot/ controller cannot be ruled out. The ATC tape replay can reveal the truth.

It has become a common practice for the journalists to put the blame on ATC blatantly in any incidents where ATC personnel are involved without going fully through the details and circumstances.

The attempt to glorify the lady commander of Air India is liable to be viewed as reciprocation from the journalist for leaking out the confidential information. Poor awareness of civil aviation of the journalist who covered the story is also evident from the report. It has become a common practice for the journalists to put the blame on ATC blatantly in any incidents where ATC personnel are involved without going fully through the details and circumstances. In this case also the ATC was projected as the villain and the lady commander as a heroine


Read also:
An incident story that turned into an accident

Even if the lady co-pilot of the Vistara airline committed some mistake, she deserves equal appreciations as received by the Air India lady commander (from the media). Why because, she was very alert and responded to the resolution advisory of the Traffic Collision Averting System(TCAS) in no time as evidenced from ADS-B pictures.

TCAS is the last resort to the pilot to avert a mid air collision in the event of ATC/pilot error. The pilots get visual indication of the conflicting traffic as early as 60 seconds (20NM) laterally and at about 6000 ft vertically in blue color on the cockpit display. When the intruder traffic is within 40 seconds and vertically below 850ft, display changes to yellow and pilot get a warning (Traffic alert). when collision is imminent. 25 seconds before (vertically 650ft), pilot receive RA along with audio instruction to climb or descend. The pilot is expected to act within 5 seconds and follow the RA instruction. Following RA collision can very well be avoided.

Now who is the real heroine?
The co-pilot of Vistara who handled the situation alone or the much more experienced lady commander of Air India who had the assistance of a co-pilot in the cockpit?

In this particular case both the lady pilots meticulously followed the RA instructions generated by the TCAS. In fact, the Vistara pilot executed a rapid descend and played an equal or a better role in avoiding the collision. In spite of receiving an instantaneous RT communication from the controller blaming her actions at that critical moment, she kept the presence of mind and immediately executed the steep descend warranted by RA. Considering the fact that at the time of the incident she was the only pilot available in the cock pit as the commander was away in the toilet she really deserves an appreciation for the most crucial emergency action and thereby avoiding a possible collision.

Now who is the real heroine, whether it is the co-pilot who handled the situation alone or the more experienced lady commander of Air India who had the assistance of a co-pilot in the cockpit?

If tomorrow, the investigations absolve the Vistara lady pilot of any violation of ATC clearance, she will emerge as a real heroine. Let us watch. These are only a public perception under the influence of a biased media. The real fact is that both have discharged the call of their normal duties and responsibilities in such an emergency situation. They are trained and rated for these kind of emergency responses.

And something more about the ATCOs who often portrayed in bad light in media reports like this:

There is a system in place in every ATC units to record the control instructions and radar situation display to facilitate future the investigation if required. The purpose of the investigation itself is to identify the deficiencies in the system and to prevent its reoccurrence. ATCOs undergo stringent and regular skill/ proficiency/performance tests to keep the currency of their ATC ratings. No inferior controllers are rated and deployed on channels.

And one should also not forget the fact that an ATCO may have to control 20 to 30 aircraft at a time in a very congested airspace like Mumbai He has to resolve multiple conflicts of air traffic on different routes/ locations at a time. He is working under severe stress as there is no scope for any error in the decisions he takes in split seconds.

Mistakes can happen at times as he is also a human being but as said above, he is very much accountable for his mistakes.

(OV Maxis is an air traffic, aviation safety expert with more than 30 years of experience. He can be reached at ovmarxis@yahoo.com)
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An incident story that turned into an accident

By Jacob K Philip

A near miss incident involving a Vistara Delhi -Pune flight and an Air India Mumbai-Bhopal flight could be one of the most discussed and widely reported aviation incidents recently in India. Though the report that was carried first by Times of India on 11th of this month and later taken up by most of the national and regional press has brought aviation safety to sharp focus again, it raises more questions on how safety issues like this are reported and interpreted by the media.

And it is also of concern that the whole details of the incident were leaked to the press by one or two  central government organizations and the press thereafter presented  it  to the public in the most unprofessional and unethical manner.

The is a gist of the report(s):

On February 7, night  an Air India flight (Mumbai to Bhopal AI 631, an Airbus A 319-112) was travelling at 27,000 ft towards Bhopal.  A Vistara flight (UK997, Airbus A320-251N) that was inn the same skies flying towards  Pune from Delhi at 29,000 feet suddenly started descending to 27,000. The astonished area controller asked the Vistara why it left the assigned level of 29,000 and going to 27,000 and the pilot of the craft retorted that she was told by the controller to do so. The argument was heard by the AI pilot too, because She too was tuned to the same frequency. Then to her horrors,  the AI commander noticed  the Vistara flight speeding towards her flight just 2.8km away. Then the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) of both the aircraft issued a very urgent collision warning (resolution advisory). The warning said, “climb, climb” to the AI  flight and the pilot climbed up and turned right immediately to fly clear of Vistara, to escape the doom that was imminent. The level difference between two flights was just 100ft before AI flight climbed up, as per TCAS. When their paths crossed each other , the level difference was just 600ft. Whereas, the allowed minimum vertical separation was 1000ft.

The original reports published by the Times of India on two consecutive days and the rehash of those reports by the rest of the national media made the readers think that:

  1. The two aircraft were traveling in opposite directions
  2. Both aircraft were maintaining their respective levels- 27,000 and 29,000 feet – cruising along peacefully until the Vistara started descending from 29,000 to AI flight’s 27,000 level.
  3. It was the presence of mind Air India pilot that saved the lives of as many as 271 people on board of both aircraft. She acted precisely and swiftly when faced by a life threatening eventuality.
  4. But for the AI pilot, the two aircraft would have collided each other, face on.

But the actual facts couldn’t have been more different:

  1. Direction of the fights: The aircraft were not traveling face to face towards each other. At the time of conflict, the angle made by the flight paths of two aircraft were apporx 120 degrees – not 180. See the picture.
  2. No level flight: After taking off at 7.40 PM from Mumbai airport, the Air India aircraft was still in the climbing phase of the flight (It had to reach the cruising altitude of 33,000ft within a few minutes) and so it was gaining around 1000-1500 feet per minute, consistently.

And the Vistara flight, that had left Delhi 6.50PM was steadily losing altitude for a landing at Pune airport at 8.52PM.

Bothe aircraft were NOT staying at any particular altitude. One was climbing, the other was descending.

See altitudes of Air India flight 631 was maintaining before and after the incident (From 23,600 to 28,300 ft)  (Log from flight tracking site Flightaware).

  • At 08:28:23pm  23,600ft
  • At 08:28:54pm  24,600ft
  • At 08:29:24pm  25,100ft
  • At 08:30:01pm  25,800ft
  • At 08:31:00pm  27,200ft
  • At 08:31:40pm  27,400ft
  • At 08:32:40pm  27,800ft
  • At 08:33:07pm  28,300ft

And these were Vistara flight’s levels :

  • At 8:28:18pm  31,500ft
  • At 8:28:49pm  31,000ft
  • At 8.29:19pm  30,200ft
  • At 8.29:49pm  29,300ft
  • At 8.30:19pm  27,800ft
  • At 8.30:49pm  27,000ft
  • AT 8.31:38pm  26,600ft
  • At 8:32:09pm  26,600ft
  • At 8:32:43pm  26,800ft

So here we have two flights traveling at two level s heading to two destinations and whose flight paths were to be crossed at some point of time.  And just as it was the only logical step, the descending aircraft was told by the Mumbai Area Control to stay above and the climbing one to stay below, so that they could be allowed to pass each other at the first safest point of time when the vertical and lateral separation between the two was safest.
And to repeat that again, it was only natural for the Vistara flight to climb down sooner or later.

  1. The pilot who braved odds to save lives?
    Not really. The pilots of both the aircraft were just obeying the orders issued by the computer of TCAS of their respective aircraft. The AI commander climbed up because the TCAS decided that was better and ordered her to do so. Just like the Vistara co-pilot, who lowered her aircraft as per the TCAS command. And there was nothing marvellous in these actions either. All the pilots are thoroughly trained to do that and they are bound to follow the exact procedure. And the decision maker is not the pilot, but the TCAS computer. The course of action is decided collectively by the TCAS computers of both the planes after assessing the speed, altitude, mode of flight and bearing of both the planes.  And when the computers issue the verbal command ( to climb or to descend, mostly) the pilots have no choice but to obey blindly.
  2. A certain doom scenario? The chances of a collision was less, though the TCAS had ordered the pilots to climb/descend immediately. Even if the planes  were proceeded in the same levels maintaining the same speed,  the chances of actual collision were remote.

See the pictures that show the full flight paths of the aircraft and the enlarged view of the point where the Resolution Advisory was given by the TCAS around 8.30pm, 7th February.

One aircraft was at 27,000ft and the other was at 27,100ft altitude. The speed of the Air India flight was 1080km/hr. The Vistara flight was covering 763 km in an hour. The lateral separation between the flights was 2.8km. The bearing of Vistara flight was 177 degrees and that of AI was 74 degrees, approx.

If we draw two lines extending the path of both the aircraft, it can be seen  that  they would cross  each other at a distance of 2km (down) from the present position of Vistara fight. To reach that point, the time  taken by Vistara would have been 9 seconds. But during those 9 seconds, AI flight would  been moved 3.9km away from its present position.
So there were no collision going to happen.

But then what about the TCAS urgent warning?  Can computers go wrong?

The computers of course were not wrong. Only that, these systems always incorporate a factor of safety in all calculations. An extra allowance will be added to all the distances and heights. And that is how it should be.

The Area Controller factor

In the sensationalized report of Times of India, this character got only a passing mention – but that was damaging enough.  According to the report, the AC was taken by surprise  ‘seeing’ the Vistara fight at level 271.  The question the AC reported to have asked the Vistara pilot – “why are you here?”-  betrays his total lack of control over his job. A person constantly monitoring the flight can’t be taken off guard like that.  So he indeed was a villain, though not the main one, in the story.

The main villain and the heroine

And about the main one, there were enough ingredients- lucky for the reporter- to spice up the  whole thing: the co-pilot was a woman; she was alone; her Commander was not anywhere near at the critical moment.  A young, in experienced, ignorant girl of a pilot left  alone to find her way out of the mess she had made was the perfect dark background for the heroine of the story.
And what a heroine it was to be !

– A mature, elegant woman in her late forties with 20 years of flying experience under her belt, the Air India commander was the perfect picture of the cool, composed superwoman who averts imminent disaster at the nick of time.

So we have the day-two story:

Near miss: How AI’s woman pilot saved lives of 261 flyers

And it will be highly inappropriate to end this note without mentioning an effort actually made by the ToI reporter to guess why there was a ‘confusion’ between the Vistara flight  and the AC.

” There may have been confusion between the ATC and Vistara cockpit — which at that time had a woman co-pilot at the controls and the captain had taken a toilet break. The AI flight had a woman commander, Captain Anupama Kohli. Maybe there was a mix-up in communication in those tense seconds like what altitude instruction is being given to which lady. This has to be seen,” said sources.”

So the assumption is that the AC got confused between the two woman voices.  It is sad that the reporter didn’t pause for a second to think about the numerous male voices an AC hears throughout the day from the cockpits of so many flights, without confusing among them.  Before writing down this silly guess, the reporter should have tried to understand a basic norm too of radio communication : Before the start of each instruction, the controller has to spell  the call-sign of the aircraft he is giving the instruction. And when the pilot replies, she/he also has to say his call-sign at the end of his words. And above all, the aircraft is constantly being  monitored visually on the radar screen, by the AC at the Area Control.

The leak

How the details of the incident found their way to the media is intriguing, to say the least.

In both the reports,  there were details that were known only to the people directly involved in the incident and to the officials of DGCA who had received reports from the parties involved – the facts that the Vistara co-pilot and Air India commander were women and the Vistara male commander was taking a toilet break during the incident are examples.

The AC , AAI and the Vistara crew  would not have leaked the info, for obvious reasons.  The remaining parties are the Air India crew and the DGCA.  Given the heroine status given to and readily accepted by its senior pilot, Air India of course is the chief suspect.  And they couldn’t have done that alone.  The other half of the story unfolded the night of 7th February aboard the Vistara flight must have been filled in by someone who had access to the report Vistara sent to the DGCA.

But why?
Why should someone from Air India and/or DGCA take the pains to give these details to the press? Not for the sake of air safety, that is obvious. If that was so, the report would have been much more accurate and the day-two story glorifying the AI commander would never have happened.

The ongoing investigation by Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau will serve its purpose fully only if the answer to the above legitimate question too is found out.

(Jacob K Philip, a Doha based aviation analyst, is the honorary editor of Indian Aviation News Net. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)
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Air India Express incident at Kochi airport: Blue lights could be the culprit

By Jacob K Philip

An aviation hazard, known as “Sea of Blue Effect” combined with the fatigue of the cockpit crew could be the reason of the taxiway excursion by an Air India Express flight during the wee hours of 5th September at Kochi international airport.

An analysis of the incident done with the help of aviation experts having many years of experience with Airports Authority of India and Air India excludes all possibilities, but this phenomena, which though specifically mentioned in the Aerodrome Design Manual (Part IV) released by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), is rarely documented and reported in India so far.

The incident

On September 5, the Air India Express Abu Dhabi-Kochi flight 452 landed at Kochi International Airport at 2.20AM on runway 27. After landing, the aircraft exited the runway through link C2 and then turned right to go to the apron of the new terminal T3. To reach the designated apron, the aircraft was instructed to exit the taxiway using the link-taxiway F in the left, after B and E. Everything went well till the aircraft reached near the exit E.  As per the reports of the incident, the aircraft  took the left turn 90m before the actual exit F. So, instead of entering the apron, the aircraft crossed into the space between link taxiways E and F and its rear wheels got caught in the 1m wide open drain that runs parallel to the taxiway. While the wheels descended into the drain, the bottom side of the two engines of the Boeing737-800 aircraft hit the paved surface beneath. The nose-wheel assembly too damaged as the most of the weight of the aircraft got suddenly transferred  to it.

The Sea of Blue

To see how an experienced pilot could cross into an open space mistaking it for the link-taxiway, we may visualize what the pilots of the aircraft were seeing from the cockpit of the aircraft during its movement  towards exit F.

When the aircraft moved forward at a speed of 18knots, the pilots must’ve been seeing  clearly  the taxiway stretching ahead. The thick yellow line marking the centre-line of the taxiway too must’ve been visible, thanks to the edge lighting.  A little farther ahead on the left, there were four links-taxiways perpendicular to the taxiway that connect the taxiway with aprons.  These links -denoted by Roman alphabets  B, E, F and G- too had blue edge lights.

When the aircraft initiating the 90 degree turn to enter the link-taxiway, the glow of the blue lights fitted along the edges of the four parallel exit paths can together appear as a huge, rectangular illuminated surface. This optical illusion is the Sea of Blue Effect.  It occurs because blue light that travels as shorter, smaller waves gets scattered more than other colors.  The light thus scattered from the edges of the five link-taxiways spaced just 125m apart can easily overlap, hiding the open land between them. So the chances are abundant for the pilot either to totally miss the actual exit that got submerged in the ‘blue sea’ or to confuse between the exit (link-taxiway) and the area  between the link-taxiways.
And it seems Flight IX452 did commit the second mistake- it turned 90 degrees to the left through the open area between E & F links-taxiways, instead of entering the link F.

But why only this pilot?

Many cockpit crew before him too would have got confused, no doubt. Only that they all could overcome the illusion just in time.  And the reason why this pilot succumbed to the playing-of-tricks by blue lights could be the very timing of the flight. IX452 that landed at 2.20 am at Kochi airport was the same aircraft that flown from Kochi to Abu Dubai as IX419 the previous evening. IX419 that took off from Kochi at 5.20pm had landed at Abu Dhabi by 7.50 pm. Within one hour, the aircraft departed to Kochi as IX452, operated by the same crew.  That means the pilot who mistook the open land as a link taxiway was continuously flying the aircraft from 5.20pm to 2.20 am, but for a one hour gap from 7.50 to 8.50pm.

And it may also be noticed that the taxiway excursion was happened 20 minutes after the beginning of the Window of Circadian Low. (WOCL, the interval of time from 2.00am to 6.00am, is a period during which people working through night can experience maximum fatigue). The end of the flight coinciding with the WOCL is more dangerous. Seeing that the duty time is almost ended, a fatigued person’s all urges will be to do away with it as soon as possible. It was only natural for the pilot to become more impatient seeing he is almost  there- a turn and then the apron and the end of the journey. And this fatigue-triggered impatience could have made him an easy prey of the  Sea of Blue illusion.

The other possibilities

  1. Reduced visibility

It is understood that the visibility at the airport during the time was more than 800m. For an aircraft moving at 20kmph, this visibility is more than enough to see the turns & obstructions ahead.

  1. Objects on the runway

Obstacles happen to be on the runway can cause the nose wheel lose control, while going over it. But nothing of this sort was reported.

  1. Faulty nose wheel moving erratically, resulting in unintentional right turn.

This indeed is a chance, especially for this particular aircraft. On March 11th 2014, while operating as  IX-193, this VT-AYB aircraft had its nose-wheel damaged during taking off from Lucknow for Dubai. Seeing parts of nose wheel gear on the runway, the ATC called the aircraft back. But the damage was repaired soon after, and the aircraft was flying all these three years after the incident.

  1. Hydroplaning & skidding

when there is lots of rain water on runway layers of water can accumulate between the wheels of the aircraft and the runway, leading to a loss of traction and  loss of control. But the rain was not that strong Tuesday night, for this to happen. Moreover, the plane’s speed was only around 20kmph.

(Jacob K Philip, a Doha based aviation analyst, is the honorary editor of Indian Aviation News Net. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)
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Pilot’s attempt to land despite captain’s objection led to Flydubai crash?

By Jacob K Philip

It could be an attempt by the first-officer to land at Rostov-on-Don itself  despite the objection of the captain that led to the crash of Flydubai flight981 at the airport  on 19th morning, this month. The transcription of the last minute of the two-hour long cockpit voice recorder points to this possibility alone.
Though Rossiya-1, a Russian  television channel, that leaked the transcription, has suggested that the crash was caused by an inadvertent activation of the elevator while the aircraft was climbing, an analysis of the transcribed voices  indicates something far more grave and intriguing.

This was how the Channel had interpreted the CVR data:

“The transcript suggests that the pilot lost control of the plane immediately after switching off the autopilot.  The pilot accidentally switched on a stabilising fin at the tail as he tried to pull the plane back to a horizontal position. With this fin activated, the plane practically does not react to the pilot’s control panel. And thus the nose dive and crash.

And here is another paragraph from a news report based on this interpretation:

“On the second landing attempt, the crew decided to pull up and try again, but 40 seconds after beginning the ascent, one of the pilots switched off the autopilot, possibly in response to sudden turbulence, the report said. Seconds after the autopilot was turned off, the plane plunged to the ground”.

The problem with these analyses was that none of them had  looked closely at the dialogues between the pilots. Instead, they went on assuming a lot of things regarding the auto pilot and the movements of flight control surfaces, without the backing of the data from the Flight Data Recorder, which was still being analysed.  The accidental activation of the elevator or a runaway  elevator were mere assumptions without the backing of any proof.

These were the sequence of events  that unfolded at  Rostov-on-Don that fateful morning:

Captain Aristos Sokratous (38) and first officer Alejandro Cruz Alava (37)  were not being able to land the Boeing-737-800 in harsh weather conditions.  They had tried to land once but had to abort it because of  poor visibility. And then began the extraordinary hovering  that lasted well beyond two hours  over Rostov-on-Don. Even as at least two other flights had opted for alternate airports (within 250 km), to the amazement of the ATC, Flight 981 opted to stay put.   After  2 hours, they decided to give it another try. But had to abort the landing again and they initiated a go-around.   But within one minute, the aircraft fell almost like a stone and crashed, killing all aboard. The transcription of the CVR has the sounds in the cockpit during that last, tragic one-minute.

The timeline and the voices:

  • Before 01:40:40GMT (The transcription aired by the channel does not specify the exact time):  ‘Going around’,  -‘Climbing to 50’, -‘Climbing to 50’
  • 01:40:40GMT: “Do not worry, do not worry, do not worry!”
  • 01:40:45GMT: “Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this!”
  • 01:40:50GMT : ‘Pull! Pull! Pull!
  • 01:40:54GMT ‘Aaaaaa’ (inhuman cries)

“Do not worry, do not worry, do not worry!”

At 01:40:40 one of the pilots says, “Do not worry, do not worry, do not worry!” (Before this, they already had aborted the landing and initiated a go around and had started climbing to 5000 ft). (Most probably that was Captain Sokratous. Because the chances for a first officer to say this to his commander are so remote).

The obvious implications of the words “Do not worry”, repeated thrice are this:

  1. One of the pilots was worried about something.
  2. The cause of the worry was already known to the other one, who seems to console, reassure.
  3. The re-assuring pilot was not sure if the other one would cease to worry- that was why the repetition.

What was the worry?

The answer could be there in the manoeuvre they just had initiated: Go around.

He must have been worried about doing a ‘go around’ again.  The next voice (heard 5 seconds after) proves this assumption was correct:

“Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this!” 

What it he was doing, for the captain to yell like this?  The answer is here:  It was at this point that the plane started its fatal dive.

So the pilot, who was worried about yet another go-around, initiated the descent on his own, against the ‘loud and clear’ instruction of the Captain.

Pull Up, Pull Up

This call to pull the aircraft up comes five seconds after.  While the aircraft was falling at disastrous speed, the voice heard yelling Pull Up, Pull Up very well could have been uttered by the Commander of the plane. And it can also be the automated ground -proximity warning.  Whatever it was, one fact is clear:  The pulling up was never done.

Inhuman cries

The nerve-chilling cries heard four seconds later imply another important thing.

It was not an attempt to crash the aircraft deliberately (as in the German wings crash case). That is, if the cry was from both the pilots.

The aircraft hit the ground within seconds, exploded, killing all aboard.

More about the “Dont Worry”

It could be argued that the pilot was not worried about the “go around”, but about some blunder he could have  committed in manoeuvring the plane, like an inadvertent pulling of a lever, activation of a switch, just as suggested by Rossiya-1.  If so, the Captian would then have been looking for a solution, a correction. He could have been trying to correct the action and at the same time only telling his colleague that, “it was okay, I will correct it, don’t worry”

What the first officer could’ve been doing while his captain been busy correcting an error he had committed? By all probability, he would have been watching it all, with guilt written all over his face. And the last thing he would do at that juncture would be touching the console again.

But what happens 5 seconds later? The Captain yells this :

 “Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this!”

The first pilot had  just done something that should never have been done!  Again?!

That is unbelievable.

There is only one explanation:  His initial worry was never about some blunder he had committed.

So why he acted against all the norms of subordination and CRM? What was the urgency?

Or again, what was his worry?

The answer will be in the CVR itself- that is, in the 119 minutes prior to the last one minute. Though it never was leaked to any media, that 119 minutes must be full of the words exchanged between the two pilots. While just hovering over an airport for two hours, looking for an oppotunity to land, no colleagues can remain silent. The answers will be there in the chat between the two while flying in numerous loops over  Rostov-on-Don.

The hovering for a couple of hours

The perplexing hovering for two hours when there were ample opportunities to fly to another and land there, may be explained, by the extra-ordinary attempt made by the pilot to land despite the shocked intervention of the captain.

It could have been because of the persuasion of the first officer that the captain decided to remain there.   He wanted to land at the airport that day. That exactly could be why  he appeared worried when the second attempt to land was aborted and the captain imitated a climb to 5000 ft.  He might’ve feared that they would be going to another airport soon.  And that explains his taking over the control.

But why?

Why he was worried about not being able to land at that airport on that fateful morning of March 19?

That obviously is the most crucial question.

(Jacob K Philip, a Doha based aviation analyst, is the honorary editor of Indian Aviation News Net. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)
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The untold story of Jet Airways Flight 9W555: How an airline and its pilot nearly crashed a passenger plane with 150 people onboard

By Jacob K Philip

An incident that was hardly noticed by the national media, though it was one of the gravest of the safety incidents ever occurred at any of the Indian airports, is bound to land Jet Airways, the operator airline, in deep trouble in the coming days.
The DGCA is viewing the incident very seriously and by all indications, both airline and the pilot who was hailed by the local newspapers and the social media as a hero who miraculously saved the lives of 142  odd passengers and eight crew, are to face the music.
It was at Kochi airport, Kerala, a southern state of India, that the chain of events that culminated in the near-disaster, started on the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 18, 2015.
When Jet Airways flight 9W 555, a Boeing 737-800, arrived from Doha, the Capital of Qatar, over Kochi at 5.45 in the morning, there were not enough visibility for the aircraft to land because of the haze that followed a heavy rain during the previous night. After holding over Kochi for a almost half an hour, the pilot decided to divert to Trivandrum. When it reached Trivandrum, visibility at Trivandrum also was less than what required for a visual landing. (ILS was not available because of a calibration issue).
The captain of the aircraft informed the Air Traffic Control (ATC) that the fuel levels were running low and he should be permitted to attempt landings even though the visibility was insufficient. The pilot tried to land from the ’14’ end of the runway thrice. By the time fuel level dropped to alarming levels according to the pilot and he made a final attempt at the other end of the runway, almost blindly. In between, he made a May Day call also.
A full emergency was declared (even before the May Day call) at the airport and all the steps were taken as per the SOP. ( Getting ambulances ready, informing city fire services also and the alerting the hospitals in the pre-made panel etc.).
The pilot however could manage to land the aircraft. The landing turned out to be without any hitch.
The whole incident would never have attracted not much of an attention, being one of the numerous diversion incidents during the inclement weather in Kerala airports, but for the grave issue of shortage of fuel involved and for the desperate frantic way the pilot behaved , making even a May Day call.
And it indeed was one of the most serious safety occurrences that could happen at any airport. And the government and the regulation authorities should be taking immediate actions, treating the incident at par with an actual air crash.
Here is why:

The core of the incident is a passenger aircraft using up almost all the fuel in-flight. There could be only three reasons for such a rarest of rare occurrence:

  1. The fuel policy of the airline that is not in line with international safety standards
  2.  Erroneous implementation of the fuel policy (If the policy was perfect)
  3. Wrong judgement and short-sighted en-route planning and erroneous/belated decision making of the pilot.

There are only remote chances for 1 to be true, because the SOPs simply will always be correct, everywhere, for all organizations.

So we can pass on to 2:
Though the fuel planning method vary across airlines, the fuel requirement for Boeing 737-800 aircraft is generally calculated as the sum of the following:

  1. Fuel to reach the destination
  2. Fuel to reach an alternate airport from the destination
  3. Fuel to fly for 45 minutes at cruising altitude from the alternate airport
  4. Fuel for planned hold
  5. Fuel to taxi
  6. 5% contingency.

So for B737-800s that fly from Doha to Kochi covering 1677 nm ( 3106 km), each of these items will work out like this:

  1. Fuel to reach the destination (kochi) = 10167 kgm (Allowing an allownace for a headwind of 50kts).
  2. Fuel to reach Trivandrum, the alternate airport, 191 km(103nm) away from kochi – 1497 kgm
  3. Fuel to fly for 45 minutes at cruising altitude from Trivandrum, the alternate airport: 2701 kgm
  4. Fuel for holding for 30 minutes: 1800 kgm
  5. Taxi fuel: 200kgm

The total of 1 to 5 is 16365 kgm

So 5% for contingency is 818.25 kgm

Therefore, the all-up total fuel required is 17183 kgm or 21478 litres

And the total fuel capacity of the aircraft is 20894 kgm (26118 litres).

Even if the aircraft had only 17183 kgm and not the maximum capacity of 20894 kgm, the 9W555 would have had 7016 kgm of fuel left when it reached Kochi.
Imagine it had spent an entire 30 minutes of holding time at Kochi. So the remaining fuel when it left for Trivandrum was 5216 kgm.
On reaching Trivandrum the fuel level would have become 5216-1497 kgm = 3719 kgm.
And how much time it spent at Trivandrum to do the three missed approaches and go-arounds? On 7.03 am, it had touched down. It reached Kochi by 5.50 AM. If it had spent 30 minutes at Kochi and it left it must have left Kochi by 6.20 AM. So, within 43 minutes, it reached Trivandrum, missed three approaches and did the final landing. Deducting the time taken by these exercises, the flying time turns out to be 15 minutes- that is to reach over Trivandrum.

So when the Captain decided to land blindly on a runway he could not see even from a height of 1500m, endangering the lives of all souls on the plane, there were 1379 kgm or 1723 litrs of fuel in the wing tanks. Enough for him to stay up for 28 minutes.
(But had the aircraft been filled up to maximum quantity, that is 20894 kgm, the quantum of the remaining fuel would have been as much as 3711 kgm).

Then why he went for the deadly gamble?

The reason should be one of the three:

  1. The pilot read the remaining fuel quantity erroneously
  2. The pilot did understand the figure correctly, but failed to calculate correctly the reaming time he could be airborne with that much fuel
  3. The fuel quantity indeed was too low. Much lower than the 1723 kgm. May be a couple of hundreds only.

If the reason was 1 or 2, the pilot is guilty of endangering the lives of a plane full of people including himself and the crew.

And if the reason was three, the pilot again is the one responsible- theoretically, at least. It is the duty of the pilot, and pilot alone, to ensure that he had enough fuel in his plane to reach the destination safely.
But it remains just a theory, for most of the private airlines in India, says an Air India commander based at Chennai who flies Gulf routes regularly.

“Being a public sector airlines and because of the presence of an employee’s union, the commanders, who are the real authority when it comes to the safety of the aircraft they fly, still do assert in Air India. But these young boys in the private airlines won’t dare..” says the Captain with over 15 years of flying experience.
And it is not budget airlines alone try to cut cost at all fronts, even if that is by comprising safety.
But even if the fuel planning policy of the airline was a culprit, the Captain of flight 9W555 has still more to answer.

1. The assessment of  the significance of an early warning received

Just five minutes after it left Kochi, the Trivandrum Area Control had passed on a crucial piece of information to Flight 9W555. They said the the visibility at Trivandrum, which was 3000 m when the aircraft started its flight to the airport, had suddenly dropped to 1500 m.   But the Captain was not to turn back.
He expressed his confidence that he can land on ‘converted minima’. (The minimum practical visibility required to land an aircraft even when the stipulated visibility is not available. The visual range is calculated by converting the meteorological visibility).
He could have made the landing as per this calculation but for just one crucial thing he overlooked. That was clouds. If clouds are there at low altitudes, all the calculations would turn upside down.
And that exactly was what happened a few minutes after at Trivandrum.

2. Briefing the ATC of the available fuel.

On way to Trivandrum from Kochi, the pilot had informed the Trivandrum ATC  that he had enough fuel  to fly for one more hour.  It was when the aircraft was around 12 minutes away from Trivandrum that this information about the fuel quantity was given to the ATC as an answer to a routine query.

So as per his own estimation, he had got only 48 minutes of fuel left when reached above Trivandrum airport. One missed approach will cost 7 minutes, approximately. So the time for three approaches is 21 minutes.

But there was a problem. The fuel consumption for B737-800 aircraft at approach levels (around 3000ft) is almost 1.5 times of the consumption in cruising levels. So at the end of three approaches he would only have fuel for for 18 minutes left instead of 27 minutes. Or roughly 1092 kgm or 1365 litters of fuel.
So when he decided at last to land blindly on Runway 32 after saying a “Good Bye” to the ATC, he actually had got fuel for 18 minutes left, if what he said to Trivandrum ATC before indeed was correct.
Why he went for the do-or-die landing where chances of crash were much so high, with 1365 litters of inflammable fuel in his wings? Perplexing, indeed.

3. The selection of the runway

At Trivandrum, the ILS is installed at the North-West or  for runway 32.  The aircraft land to the  south-east end, the runway is denoted by its shortened bearing, 14.
On the fateful morning, the ILS was not operative as said earlier. So we may think it was natural for the pilot to align to land on runway 14.
But it was not so. At Trivandrum, only wide body aircraft choose runway 14 these days because the width to turn from the other end is less when land on 32 end. For a narrow body aircraft like Boring 737-800, it never was a problem. The obvious choice was 32.
The reasons were two:

  1. When landing on runway 32, the available runway length would be more. It was because, the threshold, the first point on runway for the aircraft to touch on landing, is only 135m from the end for 32, But for 14, it is 406 m away from the runway end. When attempting to land on a runway in low visibility and in an urgency, no pilot would opt for a short runway.
  2. When trying to land on a runway with no ILS, the main navigational equipment the pilot got is his eyes. He has to see the runway and surroundings clearly. But when an aircraft approaches to land on runway 14, the morning sunlight would be falling right on the pilot’s face, effectively blinding him.

But even as the perplexed ATC people were watching, he tried not just once, but three times to land from that very side- wasting precious time and fuel.

When trying to land on the same end of the runway after an approach was missed, the aircraft will have to do a ‘go around’ to align again to that end again. That means more flying and alas, more loss of fuel.

And in the end, from where he could make the landing?

On runway 32, of course !

4. The timing of the May Day call

When did the captain actually make the May Day call that simply transformed the very character of the whole incident?
Not before the last attempt, as one would expect.
The call had already been made after the second attempt to land. And at that time, the pilot was having enough fuel to stay in the skies comfortably for 23 more minutes.
After the May Day call he tried another attempt at the same, short, runway 14.  And only after spending fuel for another 7 minutes that he could realize that runway 32 was the better choice.

The Good Bye to the ATC too to be mentioned here. It is highly unusual to end the communication with the ATC with a Good Bye. Usually it is something like “Good Day”. And the situation in which the Good Bye was uttered never lost on the ATC people.

Jet Airways, the airline and its selection of alternate airports

It is only commonsense that, chances are much high for same climatic conditions to prevail at Trivandrum and at Kochi within a span of an hour or less. If the visibility at Kochi is less, that at Trivandrum too would be less, being located only a few hundred kms away on the same western cost of Kerala. So it is sensible to NOT to set Trivandrum as an alternate airport, if the safety of passengers is indeed the main criteria.
That is why for Air India, the alternate airport is either Bangalore or Chennai and for Air Arabia, it is Coimbatore.

But then why it is Trivandrum for Jet Airways?

The answer is obvious. Private airlines are more eager to reduce the flying expenditure by all means and they think they can get away with it. It is only to fulfill a safety requirement that they fix an alternate airport in the first place. And when being compelled to do so, they select the nearest airport. Nearest airport means less flying time and less fuel.

Some other facts

What actually was the available visibility at Trivandrum when 9W555 did the reckless landing?
It was 1500 m.
And what was the actual distance required?
For runway 32, it was 2400m and for runway 14 it was 2100 m.  That was the theory.  But for all practical purposes, a visibility of 1500 m is pretty comfortable to land, says an Air India pilot- that is, if the sky is clear. The problem that morning at Trivandrum was that, in addition to the low visibility, there were clouds hanging around at an elevation 450 m or so. So when coming down to land from 900 m, that indeed would have hidden the runway from the pilot.

The May Day call
Unlike many tend to think, the utterance of a May Day call (it was SOS earlier days- Save Our Souls) by an aircraft on the final approaches at an airport is actually depriving the pilot of all the assistance from the ATC. Once the words are out, the ATC will cease all communications with him and he will be on his own then onward. That is to not to disturb the pilot when he frantically would be trying to manage the landing. He then has full freedom to resort to any action he thinks that would save the flight.  No one will interrupt him. And on Tuesday, the ATC at Trivandrum did exactly follow this dictum. Even when the aircraft’s nose pointed right towards the tower for a while during the final moments before the landing, they never tried to yell at the pilot, even as they really got terrified. With the May Day call, the preparations to handle the emergency did not escalate, though, at the airport during this  period. It was because the airport had declared a full emergency even before the May Day call was made and the SOP for that was already being followed. So there were nothing more to be done on the ground, except staying alert, expecting a crash any moment.

(Jacob K Philip, a Doha based aviation analyst, is the honorary editor of Indian Aviation News Net. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)

Note by the author on June 27, 2022:

The article was written on the third day of the incident, that is, on 21 August, 2015, based on the limited information available on that date. That is why the article says the flight had made only three failed attempts to land and that all those go-arounds were done at Trivandrum. But the Jet Airways flight that morning had actually done as many as six go-arounds (3 at Trivandrum and 3 at Kochi) and when it landed at last at Trivandrum, it actually was the seventh try.
Still, one can see that the findings of the final version of the investigation report released by the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) one year after (on 29 September 2016) do not vary much from the too-early-conclusions arrived at in the article. To cite just one sample, the article says the fuel remained after the landing could have been as less as a couple of 100 kgms. And the AAIB report finds it was 349kgms. And the AAIB report too confirms the crew jeopardized the safety of the passengers and the aircraft.

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Kozhikode airport clash: Investigation in gross violation of rules

By Jacob K Philip

One week after Kozhikode airport, Kerala, has witnessed a war like confrontation between the CISF and the airport staff, the extremely alarming incident is now being investigated in total violation of the laws of the country.

As per Indian Aircraft Act, it was the union civil aviation ministry, and not the state government to initiate actions.
And it never was the responsibility of the local police to do the investigation, collect evidence and make arrests.

The authorities in fact had no options but to go by ‘the suppression of unlawful acts against safety of civil aviation act ‘ (which forms a part of Indian Aircraft Act) and to entrust the whole investigation with an officer deputed specifically for the purpose by the Civil Aviation Ministry.

– Because what happened at Kozhikode airport between 10.30 pm and 5.30 am on the fateful night clearly were the gravest of unlawful acts against safety of civil aviation that could ever have happened at any airport in the country.
See section 3A & 4 of the Act:

3A. Offence at airport
(1) Whoever, at any airport unlawfully and intentionally, using any device, substance or weapon,
(a) Commits an act of violence which is likely to cause grievous hurt or death of any person; or
(b) Destroys or seriously damages any aircraft or facility at an airport or disrupts any service at the airport, endangering or threatening to endanger safety at that airport, shall be punished with imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.

4 . Destruction of, or damage to, air navigation facilities
(1) Whoever unlawfully and intentionally destroys or damages air navigation facilities or interferes with their operation in such a manner as is likely to endanger the safety of the aircraft in flight shall be punished with imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.

And here is how each of these unlawful acts were blatantly committed by the very agency that was entrusted with preventing the same:

3A. 1 (a): Acts of violence:

In addition to the killing of a CISF man in accidental firing, the acts of violence can be summarized like this- assaulting the airport staff, aiming loaded guns at them and chasing them across the airport.

3A. 1 (b)
Destroying facilities of airport:

Two crash fire tenders were vandalized, the doors of many rooms of the technical block were damaged, the monitor of INDRA automation system worth millions of Rupees was pulverized… the list is pretty long.

Disrupts any service at the airport:

It was not just a disruption but total stoppage of services. All the activities at the airport had come to a standstill during 10.30 PM to 5.30 in the morning.

Endangering or threatening to endanger safety at the airport:

By chasing down the people entrusted with the safe functioning of the airport and air traffic control with loaded guns and other weapons, the whole bunch of the CISF men couldn’t have managed to do this violation better. They not only made the ATC tower deserted for full 20 minutes by making the air traffic controllers flee for their lives, but they themselves had abandoned their designated posts, in the quest for revenge!

4(1)Damaging air navigation facilities:

After a chase of AAI staff in the operational area that reminded of the scenes of thriller movies, a group of CISF men had destroyed as many as 22 lights on two sides of the runway. And runway lights are crucial navigation al equipment, not to mention the monitor of INDRA automation system.

Interferes with their (air navigation system’s ) operation:

By barging into the ATC tower, which itself was a serious offence, the CISF chased away the air traffic controllers from their assigned posts(The ATC officer were hiding behind furniture in a locked store room while the Jawans searched for them with loaded guns). It was not just interference with the operation of air navigation system – It was making the whole system dead.

Now that it is established beyond a shadow of doubt that each and every clause regarding the airport /aviation safety in the act were violated, the next step is investigation and nabbing the culprits.
Now read section 5A:

(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, for the purposes of this Act, the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, confer on any officer of the Central Government, powers of arrest, investigation and prosecution exercisable by a police officer under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
(2) All officers of police and all officers of Government are hereby required and empowered to assist the officer of the Central Government referred to in sub-section (1), in the execution of the provisions of this Act.

So, contrary to what happened and still happening at Kozhikode, the local police had no right to investigate the case or to arrest the suspects. They actually had only one role to play: assisting the officer designated by the central government in conducting the investigation and making arrests.

Now read how the trial is to be conducted:

Section 5B: Designated Courts:
(1) For the purpose of providing for speedy trial, the State Government shall, with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify a Court of Session to be a Designated Court for such area or areas as may be specified in the notification.
(2) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, a Designated Court shall, as far as practicable,hold the trial on a day-to-day basis.

Section 5C. Offences triable by Designated Courts —

(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure,1973,
(a) all offences under this Act shall be triable only by the Designated Court specified under sub-section (1) of section 5B.
(2) When trying an offence under this Act, the Designated Court may also try an offence other than an offence under this Act, with which the accused may, under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, be charged at the same trial.

That means, not only the acts of violation of aviation safety rules, but all other crimes committed too during that night should be investigated only by an officer appointed by the Central Government and all the accused should be tried by the special court set-up or the purpose alone.

The investigations and arrests being done by the local police is not only in gross violations of the aircraft act, they are in utterly wrong direction too.

Because the horrific things happened at Kozhikode airport on June 10 were not a simple case of law & order; not an issue of damaging public property; not even a case of culpable homicide – but something much more serious and which is going to have far reaching consequences as far as the civil aviation scenario and internal security of the country is concerned.

(Jacob K Philip, a Doha based aviation analyst, is the honorary editor of Indian Aviation News Net. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)
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MH 370: Crash confirmed, the Answers to ‘How’ and ‘Why’ Still Hidden in the First Hours

Did the pilots try to land at three airports, one after another?

By Jacob K Philip

With the announcement made by Najiv Razak, the premier of Malaysia, that “flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean”, let us hope the prolonged suffering of the dear ones of the people aboard the flight would find a definite closure.

Because, most of the hijack and other related conspiracy theories were in fact giving the family members a false sense of hope.

When it was only common sense to conclude by the end of first week of the missing of the aircraft that the plane and its passengers were no longer alive, Nations, especially Malaysia, seemed to be stupefied by the avalanche of theories, counter theories, (false)leads, analysis and suggestions.

So the greatest significance of Najiv Razak’s statement, though severely criticized by many as hastily and without sufficient proof, is in its conclusive nature:

The plane and all its passengers are lost in Indian Ocean. That means a crash.

The investigations of all the past air crashes had proved one point irrespective of the widely varying nature of the tragedies: Crashes never are caused by a single event, unless they are executed by people. They would always be the ultimate conclusion of a chain or chains of events. Only when there is definite, well planned and direct human intervention that the pattern of events that had led to the ultimate crash would look simple. Like a straight line. A hijack is such a straight line. A pilot-suicide-incident is another.

The final picture drawn by a series of unintentional occurrences that had culminated into a catastrophic event will always look too complex. Just like it is in the case of MH370.

Though the very complexity is the biggest give away of an accident, it is an ideal breeding ground too- for theories to sprout up: Again like what happened these days.

And just like it is for all cascading failures, it would be wise to start the analysis at the beginning.  The complexity would only have started to go up at that point.

From the full transcription of the communication between the pilots and the ATC from 00:36:30, it is evident that there were nothing abnormal about MH370 till 01:07:00. Though it was suspected otherwise, it was later proven that the ACARS might have stopped working after the, “All right, Good Night”.

Just as it had been explained in the post published March 18, the highly erratic and seemingly complex flight path the plane followed from 1.21 to 2.40 am (as corroborated by the eyewitness accounts), indicate an on board emergency that manifested suddenly, after 1.21 AM. The U turn, the climb to 45,000 ft and drop to 20,000(if primary radar readings were exact), the zig-zag path followed- all might have been the external manifestations of the desperate attempts by the humans inside to tackle the problem.

The widely shared reasoning put forward by Mr. Chris Goodfellow, who has been a pilot for 20 years, was the only other voice along this line. He said the aircraft might have been looking for an airport to land after undergoing a massive system failure caused most probably by a fire on board.

The aircraft of course might have been looking for an airport to land. But unlike what Mr.Goodfellow had suggested, the airport MH370 so frantically was flying to might not have been Langkawi.

Langkawi, around 380 km from the eastern cost of Malaysia and located on the western side, was so distant an airport to try for an emergency landing. Actually, the distance to Kuala Lumpur airport from the east coast is less- only around 275 km.

So if MH370 was indeed was looking for airport, it would have done so for an airport at a distance less than 275 km. (The length of the runway was of not that importance. B777 could land on runways as short as 6000 ft, with a little expertise).

After reaching back  the east coast, the pilots would naturally have tried to locate and land at the nearest possible airport.

And there indeed were TWO airports so close to Marang and Bachok, where the aircraft was spotted by local men that night.

1. Sultan Mahmood Airport , Kuala Terengganu ( WMKN)

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2. Sultan Ismail Petra Airport (WMKC), Kota Bharu.

View Larger Map

The distance from Marang, where the first group of eyewitnesses seen the aircraft, to Sultan Mahmood Airport, is less than 50 km. The distance from Backhok, where the second eyewitness seen the craft , to Kota Bharu airport, is just around 25 km.

The most significant fact that support this theory is the seemingly erratic path chosen by the pilot. After reaching the east cost, it simply turned north west. Eyewitness 2 at Bachok said he thought the craft was going towards the sea. Need not had been.
After an attempt to land at Sultan Mahmood Airport near Marang failed , the pilot(s) must have decided to try , Sultan Ismail Petra Airport Airport, near Bachok, roughly 150 km away. The seaward flight must’ve been to aim for the Kota Bharu airport.

The reason for aborting the landing at both the attempts is evident, though.

The operating hours of Sultan Mahmood Airport is from 7.00 AM to 10.00 PM and for Kota Bharu, it is 6.00 AM to 11.30 PM.

It of course is unlikely both the pilots were ignorant of this fact. But the situation- whatever that could be- that might have been worsening by each passing seconds, might have urged the crew to resort to this desperate measure. But without any visual indications of the runway and with no means left to communicate with the airport, MH370 would have ascended again to the gloom of the night.

If MH370 had tried to land at two airports that were known to close before 11.30 PM, the on board emergency would have been that serious, and fast escalating. So the chances are remote for the aircraft to have tried for another airport.

But, if the location where the crash occurred was indeed Indian Ocean, the aircraft might have crossed the Peninsular Malaysia. That is, again a U turn after trying to land at Kota Bharu Airport. If MH370 indeed had flown towards the western coast, that might have been to try for the third time, to land.

Which would have been the target airport this time around? A big airport, not too far from Kota Bharu and one with night landing facilities. The nearest airport that match the requirements was Penang International Airport (WMKP).  The runway (4/22 ) length   is 3352 m. The airport functions round the clock. The distance from Bachok (or Kota Bharu Airport) was less than 230 km. (To Kuala Lumpur, the distance would have been around 340 km).

Only after the CVR and DFDR are recovered, these assumptions can be proved, of course. And for the relatives of the 239 people who were aboard the flight, the answer to ‘how’ matter so little. Even then, picking up the thread of reason, however feeble and slender it is, from among the misleading myriads of facts, fiction and hearsay, is always worth the attempt.

(Jacob K Philip, a Kochi based aviation analyst, is the editor of Indian Aviation News Net. He can be reached at jacob@indianaviationnews.net)
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