Exclusive Report by: Eshwar Sundaresan
Mangalore, May 22, 2010: Many questions regarding today’s air crash at Bajpe will linger on long after the dust has settled and the grief hardened. What is already unambiguous is that this terrible tragedy happened in a flash and because of a relatively small error of judgment on the part of the pilots.
Amateurs at work? Not really. The main pilot had over 10,000 hours of total flying experience. He had clocked over 3,000 hours on this particular model of aircraft. Moreover, he had landed in Mangalore 19 times before this morning.
So what happened? Did the weather cause the crash. Again: no. There was a slight drizzle, but the runway was quite dry and the visibility was 6 km. No problems on that front. In fact, the pilot did not even issue a distress call. It was all going as per the plan. Till the pilot overshot the runway touchdown point by a whopping 2000 feet. This would be a cause of concern on any airstrip, but in large airstrips like the ones in Mumbai and Delhi, the pilot would have applied his emergency brakes, and even after losing a tyre, skidded to a halt outside the runway. Indeed, such a thing has happened to an Air Sahara flight a couple of years ago in Mumbai. All passengers and crew escaped unharmed on that occasion.
The story was quite different in the Bajpe airport because, well, no other airport in mainland India is as precarious as the one in Bajpe. The runways here sit on a tabletop, with sheer drops on all sides. Even the new runway that became operational in 2006 has a length of only 2.6 km. While this is a marginal improvement over the 1.6 km length of the old runway, it does not facilitate a comfortable landing, especially for bulky international aircrafts. Even if the pilot lands bang on the touchdown point, he has a “cushion” of only 90 m. So after the pilot makes a perfect touchdown, he must brake accurately and adroitly. Only by doing all this will he make a safe landing. But if the pilot overshoots the touchdown point in Bajpe, he’s more than likely to take his precious cargo hurtling down the hilly terrain. That’s exactly what happened today.
Around 160 people lost their lives because our genius planners decided that humans never make errors of judgment.
Early though it is, we have to ask ourselves: was it really necessary to build an international airport in Bajpe’s hostile landscape? Many proposals had been put forth for locating the airport at Padubidri, a much more docile terrain that would have saved us money as well as offered more safety. The relocation made even more sense because the Mangalore International Airport was built almost from scratch. It required a new airstrip and a new terminal. Perhaps only the oil tanks and other sundry infrastructure is being reused from the heydays of the old airport. Why then could it have not been situated in a more hospitable location?
Let’s not forget that the Bajpe location was never meant for civilian landings. It was merely a convenient landing spot for the military and government aircraft during the British rule, used mainly for refueling the aircraft as they flew between Cochin and Bombay.
Only time will tell if we’ve learnt a few lessons from this tragedy. One hopes so. Mangalore Today, for one, has been asking pointed questions about the Bajpe airport since 1998. In fact, our cover story in the October/November issue (titled Ground Realities) focused on the perils inherent in the airport planning as well as the issues raised by concerned citizens regarding the airport’s expansion plans.
Excerpts from this story regarding the old airstrip are below:
With a table-top runway of just around 5300 ft, the sheer drops on either sides, it is acknowledged to be the second most hazardous airport in the country after the one at Port Blair. The only consolation is that when the aircraft reaches the edge of the cliff, it really takes off, unlike the scientist-aviators before the Wright brothers. At least they have been unfailingly doing so, thanks to the expert pilots whom the airline companies specially depute for the Mangalore-bound flights.
"According to international conventions, Boeings should not be allowed to land at [the old airstrip of the] Bajpe airport" - quote by Yashwant Kamath.
The existing runway strip is only 5300 ft long, has got a slope of five degrees and is unsuited for use by bigger aircraft like the A-320s.
Indeed, the limitations posed by the table-top runway will prove to be major hurdle [in the operation of international flights]. There may not be many takers for this potentially hazardous task. Even for domestic flights, due to the short length of the runway, the aircraft weight has to be carefully monitored, and the ratio between the number of passengers, weight of cargo and the weight of fuel have to be precisely balanced, failing which the aircraft will not get the necessary lift within the available runway space. Often, the number of passengers has to be limited to 80% of the capacity or eve lesser.
The site where the Avro carrying the then minister Veerappa Moily almost had a peek down the cliff edge. Fortunately, the only mishap so far.
There were concerns regarding the new airstrip as well. Here are a few excerpts covering those concerns:
They [a committee formed by civilians] also accuse the AAI of several serious violations of the norms as prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of which India is a member:
1) The geography will allow a runway width of only 200 m instead of the statutory 300 m.
2) It will lie within four-km aerial length of the corporation garbage dumping ground, instead of the prescribed 10 km. This means the risk of bird hits is high.
3) The proposed Indo-Rama polymers plant at Kenjar will fall within range, violating airline regulations.
The committee instead suggests that the airport will be better served if it takes the expansion along the other side at Sunkadakatte where, he says, a 12000 ft stretch will be available. "But the land is dotted with concrete buildings occupied by the rich. A minister’s (B. A. Moideen’s) house also comes in the way," he [Fr. Ronald D’Souza] added cynically.
Remember that this report was filed in 1998. The new runway became operational in 2006. In this duration, one hopes that the concerns raised above were addressed and the alternative location of the new runway considered.
Today, we mourn the loss of our brethren. But these lingering questions must be answered by our planners. We at Mangalore Today promise to continue asking these questions.