An Air India flight from Dubai carrying 166 people crashed into a heavily wooded valley moments after landing at an airport in southern India on Saturday morning, killing almost everyone on board.
Firefighters performed rescue operations as people crowd around an Air India plane that crashed in Mangalore on Saturday.
Indian firefighters carried a child, reportedly a survivor, out of the debris of an Air India plane that crashed in Mangalore on Saturday.
The plane overshot the hilltop runway where it was landing in one of India’s trickiest airports, in the city of Mangalore, which sits in the Western Ghats, or hills, on India’s southwestern coast.
Aviation officials said that the pilot of the Boeing 737 missed the landing threshold, a critical portion of the runway at airports where runways are shorter because of hilly terrain, by as much as 2,000 feet. The plane veered off the runway and struck a concrete navigational aid called a localizer, according to Praful Patel, India’s aviation minister.
“The wing fell of and the aircraft plunged into the valley,” Mr. Patel told reporters at a news conference.
Seven people survived the crash, according to the financially troubled airline, which is owned and operated by the Indian government.
“As soon as we landed, the tire burst,” one of the survivors told a local television crew from his hospital bed. “Within three seconds there was a fire blast. The inside was filled with smoke.”
He said he escaped through a crack in the fuselage.
Aviation officials said that the weather was clear, with six kilometers of visibility, and no rain. The plane’s pilot had landed the same aircraft on the Mangalore runway 19 times before. And while the runway is shorter than others in major Indian airports, it was more than adequate for landing a Boeing 737, aviation safety experts said.
The flight is popular with migrants from southern India, millions of whom work as laborers in construction sites in the Persian Gulf.
Rescue workers scrambled over the smoldering crash site, looking for more survivors among the charred remains, but there was little hope of finding anyone else alive.
The crash, at an airport with a short runway built on a plateau and surrounded by cliffs, is likely to renew debate about safety standards in India’s rapidly expanding aviation sector. Some Indian aviation safety experts have expressed increasing concern in the last couple of years about the country’s airlines, airports and regulations. Last year, there were three near-miss collisions between planes at the airport in Mumbai, the country’s commercial capital.
Air India, in particular, has been in the news for a number of embarrassing incidents, including a midair scuffle between pilots and flight attendants during which the plane was reportedly unmanned for a few minutes. In September, an Air India flight to Toronto was delayed 11 hours while staff searched for rats that had climbed aboard the plane.
As investigators rushed to the smoldering wreckage, experts said the unusual configuration of the runway made landing there complicated.
Kapil Kaul, the chief executive of India and the Middle East at the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, a research group, said pilot error was a likely cause. The pilot had 7,500 hours of flying experience, 3,500 of which were on this type of plane, Mr. Kaul said. But he may have missed the landing threshold, which is the very first part of a runway usable for landing, he said. That kind of error doesn’t always result in a crash, but did at the Mangalore Airport because it is on a plateau.
The plane, a Boeing 737-800, was relatively new, having made its first flight in December 2007, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
The 737-800 has been involved in five fatal accidents since entering service in 1998. The most recent was in January, an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea in stormy weather shortly after takeoff from Beirut, killing 90 people. The cause of that accident remains under investigation.
In February 2009, nine people died when a Boeing 737-800 operated by Turkish Airlines crashed on approach near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Dutch investigators identified a faulty altimeter, which caused the plane to slow down too abruptly and stall at an altitude of around 2,000 feet.
Sanat Kaul, a former aviation ministry official and a former member of Air India’s board of directors, said the runway at Mangalore airport sits on a plateau and was extended to 8,000 feet, from 5,500 feet in 2006 to better accommodate bigger planes like the 737.
“Mangalore is a difficult field because it is on a plateau,” he said. “From all accounts the visibility was all right. One can’t make any conclusions. The runway was extended to 8,000 feet in 2006. That is all right for landing” a 737.
The airline said 160 passengers were on board, four of them infants, along with six crewmembers.
Air India, which is owned and run by the Indian government, has been struggling since a 2007 merger with another state carrier, and lost $1.2 billion in the last fiscal year. Competition from new private airlines like Kingfisher and Jet Airways is luring away customers, and the company is focusing on cutting costs by trimming staff and routes.
Many safety consultants blame the government for weak policies and spotty enforcement.
“Aviation safety is a potent subject in America while it is an impotent one in India,” A. Ranganathan, a former pilot and safety consultant, wrote in The Hindu newspaper late last year. “We are impotent because we have an ineffective hierarchy — ministry, legislators and regulator — controlling aviation.”
If most of the passengers have been killed, as is feared, this would be the worst airline disaster in India since 1996, when an Air Kazakhstan flight collided with a Saudi Arabia Airlines flight in midair above Delhi airport, killing 312 people.
The last major airline accident in India was in 2000, when an Alliance Air Boeing 737 plane crashed into a neighborhood while trying to land at an airport in Patna, killing about 60 people.
Credit: NY Times