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DGCA Chief Quashes Reports of No Friction Testing at Kerala Airport, Says Pilots Likely Misjudged Landing

The wreckage of Air India Express jet is pictured at Calicut International Airport in Karipur, Kerala, on August 8, 2020. (Arunchandra Bose/AFP)

The wreckage of Air India Express jet is pictured at Calicut International Airport in Karipur, Kerala, on August 8, 2020. (Arunchandra Bose/AFP)

Eighteen people have so far died in the crash after an Air India Express plane overshot the runway at Kozhikode's Karipur Airport on Friday night.

Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) chief Arun Kumar on Saturday stated it is incorrect to say that friction testing at the Karipur airport in Kozhikode was not done, a day after an Air India Express flight skidded off the run and split into half. At least 18 people have died till now.

"The Calicut Airport is the 11th busiest airport in the pilot. It is incorrect that friction testing was not done," Kumar told CNN-News18 in an exclusive interview. "There was poor judgement of pilots while landing, the runway was long enough for safe landing."

Excerpts from an interview:

What is the preliminary assessment? The aircraft had a faulty landing, 3,000 ft beyond the normal touchdown point. Could this be due to a landing gear issue or bad judgement call?


An Aircraft Accident Bureau team is there. They reached there at 5am and thereafter the work is in progress. They have already recovered the flight data recorder and copy voice recorder. They have to examine the conversation between the pilot and the co-pilot to ascertain what actually transpired in the aircraft and in those last 18 eventful minutes. Those minutes were between 7:28pm to 7:41pm. Basically, first they tried to land from one side of the runway. They could not land. And then they asked from the other side. At 7:37pm, they were given clearance to land from the other side. They were given clearance to land. Unfortunately, they did land but not the way they should have. It appears from preliminary information that they landed more than 3,000 ft on the runway. And the runway is fairly long. It’s a 9,000 ft long runway. For a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, this long runway is not required. This runway even supports wide-body aircraft. Now, even if they have landed before 1,000 ft. But they landed more than 3,000 ft or so. Exact numbers will come out from flight data recorder.

So do you think it was a bad judgement call?

Looks like it. Once your touchdown point is almost 40% of the runway that you’ve covered and you are floating for a couple of seconds and then you touchdown. And thereafter you are in high speed. So, it is likely that you’ll go beyond the runway. Now after it you have the runway and the safety area, which is also fairly big, 240m cross 90m. They had crossed that. And beyond that, they have gone further 10 ft. which is the valley side and the aircraft has broken into three parts. Earlier, we heard two parts but even the tail is separated. And the frontal part which is the cockpit side has been hurt most severely. Because touchdown has happened from that side. Now, most of the casualties have been reported from that side. Unfortunately, both the pilots are dead and the two-crew member seated in the front have survived but have serious injuries.

This aircraft did not catch fire. The plane’s fuselage sheared apart but did not catch fire. Is it possible that the pilots switched off engines deliberately, thereby saving lives otherwise the tragedy would have been bigger?

There is great likelihood of that and most probably that’s why they slowed down the aircraft. But another meek difference between the two runways -- the Mangalore one and this one -- Mangalore valley is very deep, about 300 ft. If you go down 300 ft and 35 ft, there is a difference. So, probably the material condition and topography of the runway is slightly different. So, this is also a tabletop. But that tabletop is much deeper. But by God’s grace, 170-odd people have been saved.

The runway wasn’t friction tested as the friction testing vehicle was available at the airport.

That’s not correct. I’ve kept this on my mobile as it was tested on the same day on 8th and the runway’s reports are good. It’s more than, which is considered good. This information is not correct. People are talking all kinds of things because they are entitled to. But the fact remains that the friction test was done and it was in the permissible limits.

Did the DGCA ignore warnings? In 2011, Captain Ranganathan, who is the civil aviation expert, had written the DGCA about dangerous situations, especially in wet conditions. As recently as 2017, we saw what happened to a Spicejet-operated Q400 plane with 75 people on board that veered off the same runway and stopped at the edge. Shouldn’t the precautions have been taken earlier?

About the Mangalore tragedy of 2010 -- there was an investigation committee set up, they had talked of runway and safety areas, 240m x 90m; which is basically the earthen surface where the plane can stop. For example, the aircraft will not slide. It’s a rough surface. The runway safety area was carved out to get some more land. But it is a valley and the land was not available. So, the original length was 2,850m, which was curtailed to 2,700m. Then 150m was added and the area was supplemented. Most of the compliance, as stated in the report, was done.

Despite all warnings, in 2019, we have the DGCA notice which talks about excessive rubber deposit on runway, water stagnation at runway and turn pad. Were these warnings paid heed to and the corrections made?

The corrections did take place. We didn’t go public, that is why this misunderstanding. It’s our job to keep doing surveillance and audits. These result in findings, which further leads to improvements. Findings as in some rubber deposits that every aircraft leaves on runway were found. Now if they aren't removed, the friction level goes down. There is a special vehicle for this. There are 8-9 findings and everything was improved.

Do you think there is a need for the complete review?

Probably, doesn’t work like that. I say this because runway the length of 9,000 ft cannot be abandoned. Shimla is too small a runway, it can be. But a 9,000 ft runway is huge. The international civil aviation system has mitigation measures. You have to put them in place, which allows you to fly safely. If they are in place, flying is not an issue. And globally tabletop is not an innovation. This airport is the 11th busiest airport in the country and more than 25,000 aircraft move in a year, which means 20 wide-body aircraft landed everyday before Covid-19. The number now has gone down.

Marya Shakil Marya Shakil is an award-winning Journalist with over 12 years of experience. Her show on the Muslims yearning to be part of the mainstream earned her the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award in Politics and Government category in 2012. She also received the award in the same category for the Lok Sabha election coverage of 2014. Marya is Political Editor, Senior Anchor with CNN-News18 who works as part of the National Bureau team. She regularly anchors, reports and produces her show – Reporters Project. As a reporter who covers politics and ministries of Union of India, Marya reported during the General Elections of 2009, 2014 and the state assembly elections of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Jharkhand etc. She joined CNN-News18 (A Time Warner & Network 18 Service) immediately after completing her Masters in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia’s AJK Mass Communication Research Centre in 2005. She was also awarded a research fellowship with SARAI-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2004. She also won the prestigious Chevening South Asia Journalism Fellowship in 2016. Was the first tv journalist to report on the night of the clampdown of Baba Ramdev’s agitation at the Ramlila Maidan. Human interest stories and shows as commentaries on society are her forte, in which Marya has given successfully contributed some of the best stories to the channel/ She often takes workshops in media institutes in India. She enjoys interacting with aspiring students of mass communication and journalism. Travelling in the Hindi-heartland and learning from people is what she likes most.