IT is too early to jump to conclusions about the crash-landing of the Air India Express flight from Dubai to Kozhikode in north Kerala on the Vande Bharat mission on Friday night with 190 passengers and crew on board. That the aircraft broke into two as it plunged over 35 ft down a cliff undoubtedly points towards the treacherous role played by the tabletop runway at the Karipur International Airport in the tragedy that took the lives of 18 people, including the pilot and the co-pilot. In 2010, a similar Boeing 737 aircraft had overshot the tabletop runway at the Mangalore airport, killing 158 passengers and crew. Soon after, an aviation expert had warned the Directorate General of Civil Aviation about the possibility of a repeat at Kozhikode. But this crash proves that all those deaths were in vain; for, no lessons were learnt by the regulator, the Airports Authority of India and the airlines.
Captain Deepak Sathe aborted an attempt and then landed with heavy tailwinds, missing the touchdown zone on a runway covered with rainwater. The Air Force Academy’s Sword of Honour recipient, who was an accomplished fighter and test pilot, according to some accounts had ejected all the fuel as a precaution while landing. This is being cited in social media posts made by Captain Sathe’s relatives as the reason for the aircraft not bursting into flames and killing all on board. Though the possibility of the pilot’s error of judgement cannot be ruled out, the supreme sacrifice of Sathe and his co-pilot, Akhilesh Sharma, ought to be acknowledged.
These accounts indicate acts of omission and commission by the authorities, who allowed big aircraft to operate from a tabletop with hardly any buffer between the runway and a steep drop ahead or space on either side; worse, the airport operator seems to have allowed water to collect on the runway, leading to aquaplaning. The question, as to why the aircraft was not diverted to Kochi by the air traffic controllers despite inclement weather, hangs in the air.