Experts battle for their teams amid PIA crash probe

Updated Jun 02 2020

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Some retired and serving pilots raise eyebrows about CAA’s role in light of communication between pilot and air traffic controller. — AFP/File
Some retired and serving pilots raise eyebrows about CAA’s role in light of communication between pilot and air traffic controller. — AFP/File

LAHORE: The atmosphere is rife with suspicion as various groups within the system try to pass the buck to the ‘other’ before an inquiry can come up with any solid evidence of responsibility in the crash of the Pakistan International Airlines aircraft in Karachi on May 22 that killed 97 people.

A Dawn talk with experts points out just how complicated the quest for truth could turn out to be and most significantly how very impossible it may turn out for the probe finding to be universally acceptable — given the difference of views between the two prominent wings of the whole aviation operation in the country: those whose job is to fly the planes and the one who must do their duty of guiding these aircraft complete their journey safely.

The investigators’ main focus has so far been on the first failed landing and go-around (re-take off) of the ill-fated PK-8303 flight that crashed in Karachi on May 22 and they have recorded important statements of the air traffic controllers concerned who have also been stopped from working till completion of the probe.

Some retired and serving pilots raise eyebrows about CAA’s role in light of communication between pilot and air traffic controller

Some retired and serving pilots have raised eyebrows about the role of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the light of the communication between the pilot and the air traffic controller. They ask questions about leakage of the video of runway inspection that provided much fuel to the theories of ‘pilot failure’, and as to why the air traffic control (ATC) did not give the pilot an alternative option — longer vector plan — in the emergency situation after the first failed landing attempt.

“The four-member team of investigators — the Aircraft Accident and Investigation Board (AAIB) notified by the federal government with Air Commodore Usman Ghani its president, has recorded the statements of the air traffic controllers concerned and the runway inspection team. The controllers in question have been stopped from working till the fixing of responsibility for the crash,” an official privy to the investigation told Dawn on Monday.

“So far the investigators have collected evidence — runway pictures, aircraft parts, record of communication between controllers and pilot, recording by the radar, and other related material,” the source said.

“The local investigators are mandated to spot and fix responsibility for violations in the aviation procedures and suggest remedy to avoid a repeat.

The investigators have located the missing cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder (FDR). Parallel to this, the investigation team of the manufacturer of (the crashed) Airbus-320 is holding its own probe into the crash.

Quoting a senior air traffic controller, an official told Dawn that the aircraft was kept with ‘approach controllers’ all the time as per procedure. “The pilot did not call tower frequency at any time during the flight and was in contact with the ATC till he crashed,” he said, adding the role of co-pilot would come to fore through the material stored in the voice recorder.

“The rules require the local authorities to carry out biopsy on the bodies of the pilots. This has not been done.”.

“Let’s try and understand the basic roles first. The pilot is at the helm. Taxing, takeoff, turns, flaps rudder, yaw, pitch, roll, and all switches in the cockpit are controlled by him,” the official said.

The controller on the other hand, “guides the aircraft on its route as requested by the pilot. The main responsibility of the controller is to avoid midair collisions. When the flight reaches close to the destination, say 50 miles or so, the radar controller provides guidance (vectors) to the pilot to position him ideally at 10 miles in line with the runway; from where the pilot takes guidance of ILS (instrument landing system) installed at the airport, and makes a comfortable landing.

“Similarly, lowering of gear (wheels) is a basic requirement which should be completed at 10 miles from touch-down. The ATC is responsible to keep the runway clear of other aircraft/vehicle etc when a landing/takeoff is in progress. If the pilot announces an emergency, like fire, engine/other problem, ATC accommodates his landing at priority and holds other traffic till the aircraft has landed safely.”

As the probe into the crash continues one emerging pattern not very popular with the pilots says the Airbus-320 captain did not report any emergency after he tried to land the first time. He was told that at 3,500ft he was a bit high on approach so he may descend down to 2,000ft or so in a circle, but the pilot said he was comfortable and continued straight on.

The official Dawn talked to said once the pilot realised that he could not make a proper landing, he went around from a very low height, more than scraping the runway and in the process the engines were damaged.

“ATC gave him clearance to come back and land on any runway and stopped all traffic for him. The ill-fated plane had already damaged its engines, and it crashed a mile short of the runway.”

He said in this case, landing clearance from the control tower was obtained beforehand and passed on to the aircraft. “The aircraft either on short finals or after landing is asked to switch over to the tower frequency. Normally the radar frequency is also available with the tower controller. In this particular case, as it appears that the aircraft was very high on approach, hence was kept on radar frequency presumably for monitoring of the aircraft height.”

He said the pilot of PK-8303 should have tried to land in the first instance. “Shorter vector is only given in emergency on pilot’s request or controllers have to adjust for sequencing. In the whole process the pilot neither reported any emergency nor for any shorter vector which means the cockpit showing normal.”

Another official asked while the controller must have seen sparks as the plane’s engine hit runway, why did the ATC allow the pilot to take off again? ATC should have told the pilot he had no choice but to make an immediate emergency landing.

A retired pilot said the trajectory of the plane after the aborted landing showed as if the pilot was unaware of the emergency situation. The aircraft went far away from the runway and was almost over Korangi industrial area, which took aircraft away from the gliding range. It appeared as if ATC and Karachi Radar had not reacted to force the aircraft to make an immediate landing.

“After takeoff from abandoned landing the pilot asked for the subsequent landing to adjust for stabilised approach. For a stabilised approach the pilot is required to go back for 10 miles away from the runway landing side and after go around till landing it requires at least 10-12 minutes in the air to prepare for landing. As the pilot had asked for another stabilised approach that meant he was not aware of the damage done to the aircraft engines till the time he lost his engines at 1,800 feet above ground during climb, which he announced to ATC, when he was not left with any choice than to make an emergency forced landing.”

He said when the pilot lost engines he was very close to final approach path of Faisal runway, which was within the gliding range of the aircraft. It was possible to make forced landing there with only a 90 degree right turn.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2020