Santos Dumont, Rio de Janeiro

Devinder C Mehta
The dust has settled and much speculations have been made by the aviation experts both in print and electronic media, wherein attempts have been made to analyze the cause of the Mangalore crash in May. In some cases, the tendency has been to be judgmental prematurely. Some have even questioned the wisdom in constructing a tabletop runway and have gone to the extent of declaring such a runway unsafe. I thought it prudent to write on the subject matter, so as give the correct perspective to those not very familiar with the nitty gritty of aviation.

Mangalore airport is not the first or the last which has a table top runway, the world over there are countless table top runways, so much so, in India too we have table tops other than Mangalore. 

Devinder C Mehta

As regards the safety aspect of Mangalore airport, let there be no misconceptions prevail in this regards. To substantiate my statement I would like to lay due emphasis on the following:-

Mangalore airport is a ‘DGCA Licensed’ airport.
The runway has been constructed in accordance with the ICAO norms inclusive of RESA. Casting aspersions in this respect is meaningless. To substantiate my statement I would like to cite the example of Santos Dumont Airport.

Santos Dumont was Rio de Janeiro's first airport and today the second largest. It is located close to the city downtown and it has an excellent view to the mountains and the bay. The airport is rather small but served by many annual passengers. The main runway is only 4,400 feet long, yet is being used constantly by Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s. Due to the peninsula with the Sugar Loaf mountain in front of runway II, there are only circling approaches to the runway and the area of maneuvering is limited because of surrounding hillsides. 

Given the 4,400 feet runway at Santos Dumont, it is somewhat ridiculous to be harping about RESA at Mangalore. The runway length of 8000 feet at Mangalore is good enough for landing a Boeing 737 – 800 aircraft and, therefore, does not warrant to be clubbed unsafe. Besides, the runway has been in operations for over four years and there have been more than 32,000 movements ever since. Pertinently, the pilot and co-pilot have together operated ex-Mangalore on 85 occasions.

Dixie Road and Highway 401 Even on tabletop runways of 9000 ft such accidents have occurred

As regards those who are questioning the very wisdom behind construction of this runway, I suppose it would suffice if one were to remind them of the saying “Two miles of road need not necessarily lead or connect you to anywhere, whereas two miles of runway will not only lead you but also ensure connectivity the world over.” 

If one is viewing the issue from the hazardous point of view, then why are we talking of Mangalore airport only. In India itself there are many airports which can easily be clubbed as more critical and in difficult terrain than Mangalore. Does it mean that we scrap all these airports and make them non-operational? Well, let us not forget or overlook the fundamental principle that an airport undoubtedly contributes to the economic growth of the region it is located in.

As regards speculations doing the rounds with respect to the nationality of the pilot, it may be incorrect to view this from the angle of caste, colour or sex, as a pilot is a pilot and is grilled right and proper before not only obtaining a license but also prior to being cleared for flying on difficult and special assignments. As regards the conversation that has taken place between the PF (pilot flying) and PNF (pilot not flying) especially soon after the retrieval of the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder), I had myself gone live on two leading TV channels and said that what ever is being shown appears to be doctored for the simple reason that any evidence retrieved gets sealed and no one can have any access to this evidence before it is produced before the investigating authority. The question, therefore,of ATCO having advised the pilot of the inherent danger of his crashing and asking him to go around does not arise. However I had also given a brief narration as to the sequence in which the ATCO clears the aircraft to land and how ATCO and the Shift Fire Officer-in-charge of the Fire Service Station keeps a vigil on the landing aircraft till such time the aircraft clears the runway. Moreover, it may be worthwhile to mention that post 9 / 11 there are clear and unambiguous instructions with regard to PF being incapacitated. To elaborate, if after two verbal warnings from PNF there is no response from PF, the PNF is to consider PF as incapacitated and should take over the control of the aircraft. In case of not having stabilized on the glide slope PNF is to initiate a go around at 1000’ and 500’ in IMC and VMC respectively.

It was indeed unfortunate that such like ghastly accident occurred wherein we have lost precious 158 lives. 

The need of the hour is to comfort the aggrieved families rather than aggravating their pain and sorrows by becoming judgmental and blaming the agencies / individuals involved which could get manifested in them unjustifiably cursing the so blamed. It is just question of time before the facts get revealed, for DGCA, the regulatory body, is well seized of the situation and has initiated appropriate action. The concern of the authorities can be gauged from the fact that the Minister of Civil Aviation, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, the CMD Air India and the Chairman AAI rushed to the scene to take stock of the situation in person and render guidance where necessary and also to be with the family members of the injured and deceased passengers at Mangalore airport.

Returning to the subject of accidents of aircraft overshooting on landing—there have been several across the world over, be it the most advanced countries. Runway excursion is an incident involving only a single aircraft where it makes an inappropriate exit from the runway. This can happen because of pilot error, poor weather, emergency, or a fault with the aircraft. Overrun is a type of excursion where the aircraft is unable to stop before the end of the runway. An example of such an event is Air France Flight 358 in 2005. Further examples can be found in the over-run category. Runway excursion is the most frequent type of landing accident, slightly ahead of runway incursion. For runway accidents recorded between 1995 and 2007, 96% were of the 'excursion' type. The Airbus 340 was cleared to land on Runway 24L, which at 9,000 feet (2,700 m) in length is the shortest runway at Pearson Airport. After touchdown, the aircraft did not stop before the end of the runway, but continued for 300 meters until it slid into the Etobicoke Creek ravine, on the western edge of the airport near the interchange of Dixie Road and Highway 401.

Also, to prove the point that Mangalore airport is neither unsafe nor dangerous, appended below are pictures of a few airports in different parts of the world which by the look it self do not appear to be comfortable:

Princess Juliana International Airport (TNCM) 

This is world famous for its placement. Heavy long-haul jets, in particular the Boeing 747, are passing the crowded Maho Beach at low altitude just seconds before touchdown at runway 09. Beyond multiple local and American destinations the airport also serves European destinations as of the historical connections with Europe. The only instrument approaches are VOR and Locator for the 7,100 ft long runway 09. 

Chicago Midway International Airport

It covers one square mile and currently has five runways: They are: Runway 13C-31C: 6,522 × 150 ft (1,988 × 46 m), air carrier runway, ILS equipped. Runway 4R-22L: 6,446 × 150 ft (1,965 × 46 m), air carrier runway, ILS equipped. Runway 4L-22R: 5,507 × 150 ft (1,679 × 46 m), general aviation and air taxi. Runway 13L-31R: 5,141 × 150 ft (1,567 × 46 m), general aviation and air taxi. Runway 13R-31L: 3,859 × 60 ft (1,176 × 18 m), light aircraft only. Length of the longest runway at this International Airport is 6522 ft.

Macao International Airport

From the above examples it is amply clear that neither Mangalore airport is dangerous nor unsafe, as being proclaimed by some. Hence, the wisdom behind construction of the airport or the new runway ought not to be questioned. Boeing 737 type of aircraft is being operated at airports with much smaller runways when compared to the Mangalore airport. Also, unfortunately accidents of the type that occurred at Mangalore have also occurred at normal airports with 9000 ft runways belonging to countries with advanced technology. I would earnestly appeal to all concerned not to get impatient and to ‘wait and watch’ since the findings of the inquest are not far away. The lessons that are likely to flow out of the findings ought to be taken note of and implicitly followed in letter and spirit, so that we do not commit / repeat the mistakes / lapses that may have contributed towards this most unfortunate accident.

—The author is a retired group captain and is currently an adviser on Media affairs to the chairman, Airport Authority of India.

August 2010

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