It was a quartet of mistakes that could have had disastrous consequences. In the course of landing an aircraft in a strong crosswind, an Air India Express commander took four erroneous decisions, one after another, endangering a Boeing 737 aircraft and its 87 passengers. Luckily, it all ended with damage done only to the aircraft and the commander’s flying record.
The potentially fatal incident occurred on November 3 on the Cochin-Salalah Air India Express flight IX 441 when it landed after three attempts at 9.45am, local time. After a very rough touchdown, the Boeing 737 aircraft hurtled down the runway only to jerk sharply as two tyres burst. One wing almost scraped the runway surface and the landing gear was damaged before the aircraft came to a halt near the runway end. The commander was so flustered that even after the plane stopped, he kept the engines running and did not release his foothold on the brakes for about 15-20 minutes till an engineering team arrived to tow away the aircraft.
Confirming the incident, the Air India Express spokesperson said: “The landing was not in keeping with our standard operating procedures. It indicated a disregard for the SOP by the commander.”
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation is investigating the matter.
The series of faulty decisions began when the flight reached Salalah ( Oman) airspace and the pilots were informed by the Omani air traffic controller that the wind speed on the ground was 25 knot (46 kmph) gusting (sudden bursts of high-speed wind) to 35 knot (65 kmph). “The aircraft should not have attempted a landing in Salalah as the crosswind (wind blowing across the runway) speed was about 35 knot,” said a source. The SOP manual disallows a landing when the surface wind speed is beyond 25 knot, and in this case, it was not only about the wind speed but also about wind direction. Landing in a crosswind is more difficult, as an aircraft is prone to drifting laterally as it approaches the runway.
At this point, the commander should have diverted the aircraft to Abu Dhabi, the alternate airport listed in the flight plan. An aircraft is flown to an alternate airport if the commander perceives that a safe landing is not possible at the destination airport (it is mandatory to carry enough fuel to fly to the alternate). There are instances where experienced commanders have managed to land safely in a strong wind and taken care to ensure that the flight safety department of the airline concerned was not informed about it. “But the best of pilots follow the norms. If a landing is in violation of an air safety norm, it is not done,” said a senior commander.
The AI Express commander too tried to land in Salalah, but had to abort the landing. After the first failed attempt, he took the aircraft up 6,000 feet and after 10 minutes attempted a second landing, only to fail again. Finally, he decided to divert to Abu Dhabi, which is one hour, 15 minutes away. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. “The commander entered the wrong data into the Flight Management System and it threw up a scare,” said the source. “It showed that only six minutes of flying time would be left on reaching Abu Dhabi, which was insufficient to make a landing.” In reality, the aircraft had 4.7 tonnes of fuel on board, and the fuel needed to reach and land safely in Abu Dhabi was 4.5 tonnes. But since the commander was under the impression that the aircraft was short on fuel, he panicked and decided to return to Salalah.
It was now the commander’s third attempt at landing in Salalah in poor weather, which is something air safety experts warn against. Several airlines worldwide have banned a third attempt at landing at an airport in poor weather and made a diversion mandatory. Air India, however, does not have such a policy yet-the airline spokesperson said this was “under review”.
During the third attempt, the commander decided to do an autoland although the cockpit crew was not trained to do so. In an autoland, the aircraft directly takes inputs from ground-based navigation instruments that give guidance to an aircraft on descent profile and horizontal manoevering. But there are wind speed restrictions for autoland, and a 35-knot crosswind is way above the permissible limit for a B737. “The commander also disregarded the limitations by Boeing Company for autoland operation,” said the airline spokesperson. “The matter is under investigation by our air safety department.”