(Clockwise) Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan briefs the media in Islamabad about the initial report on the May 22 plane crash. A graphic shows the location of Karachi Airport and its vicinity. Mohammad Zubair, one of the two survivors, at his home in Karachi on Wednesday. A file photo shows security personnel guarding the plane’s wreckage.—White Star / AFP
(Clockwise) Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan briefs the media in Islamabad about the initial report on the May 22 plane crash. A graphic shows the location of Karachi Airport and its vicinity. Mohammad Zubair, one of the two survivors, at his home in Karachi on Wednesday. A file photo shows security personnel guarding the plane’s wreckage.—White Star / AFP

• Minister says Covid-19 was on the minds of both pilot, his co-pilot
• Air Traffic Control officials also at fault, for they didn’t raise alarm about damage to engines

ISLAMABAD: Presenting the preliminary investigation report of the last month’s crash of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) aircraft near Karachi airport, Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan on Wednesday told the National Assembly that “overconfident pilots” and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) officials were responsible for the tragedy as they did not follow the set procedures at the time of landing.

According to the minister, the ill-fated aircraft was “100 per cent fit” for flying and there was no technical fault in it. Similarly, Mr Khan said the pilot and the co-pilot were experienced and “medically fit”. The air crew did not point out any technical fault even while making the final approach for landing, he added.

However, according to the minister, the pilots were not focused at the time of landing and throughout the flight they had discussed the Covid-19 issue.

“Corona was on the nerves of the pilot and his co-pilot. Their family members were affected. They listened to the (ATC) instructions and then again started discussion on the coronavirus,” the minister said, adding that he had himself heard the recording of the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) that recorded all the conversation that took place in the cockpit cabin throughout the flight time.

On May 22, the PIA’s A320 aircraft crashed in a densely populated area of Karachi near Jinnah International Airport, killing 97 of the 99 passengers and eight crewmembers on board. A teenage girl on ground also died later. The Lahore-Karachi flight (PK-8303) had crashed while making a second attempt to land.

Quoting from the report, Mr Khan said the first irregularity noticed by the ATC was that the aircraft was at 7,200 feet, instead of standard 2,500 feet, when it was 10 miles away from the runway. When the control tower officials informed the pilot about it and asked him not to take the position for landing, the pilot “ignored” it and said that he would manage it, the minister said.

The minister said it was not known as to why the pilot, who had lowered the landing gears when the aircraft was at 10 nautical miles, pulled it back when it reached five nautical miles.

The pilot, he said, touched down the runway without lowering the landing gears, thus damaging both its engines and then took off to make another landing attempt.

At this point, the minister said the control tower was at fault too for not informing the pilot about the damage to the engines and for not issuing further instructions.

“The ATC (controller) should have infor­med when he saw the engines on fire. The control tower did not inform the pilot [so it] was at fault too. When the plane took off again, both engines were damaged,” the minister said.

Mr Khan said the plane was on auto-landing but the pilot brought it back to manual system just before the crash. He said the plane fell on the houses in a locality near the airport while making the second attempt to land.

“The pilot as well as the (air traffic) controller both did not follow the set procedures. The pilot ignored the instructions and controller did not inform him (the pilot) about the damage to the engines caused due to friction,” the minister said.

Mr Khan said the data from the Digital Flight Data Recorder (DFDR) and the CVR was decoded in the presence of foreign experts in France.

He said the complete report of the incident would be presented before the parliament by the end of the year and claimed that the inquiry was being conducted in a fair and transparent manner.

Action against pilots

The aviation minster disclosed that there were 860 active pilots in the country, and 262 pilots had appeared in exams through proxies. Moreover, he said, the degrees of four pilots were found to be fake.

Mr Khan said fake degrees and licences were issued to the pilots and almost 30 per cent of the pilots had fake or improper licences and did not have flying experience either. Declaring it a national security issue, the minister said the government had started taking action against all such pilots.

In the first phase, the minister said, 54 such pilots were identified and show-cause notices had been issued to 28 of them. He said nine of them confessed they were unqualified and were seeking pardon.

He announced that the government had taken the decision to do restructuring of the PIA, instead of privatising it.

Shortly after the crash, the government had formed a committee, headed by Air Commodore Usman Ghani, who is president of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) to determine the causes of the crash and issue a report in a month.

An 11-member team of Airbus, the manufacturer of the A320 aircraft, also visited the country and investigated the site of the incident to offer technical assistance to the local investigators.

Past accidents

The minister also presented the conclusion of the reports of the four previous plane crashes that took place between 2010 and 2019, saying all the accidents, except the PIA ATR’s crash near Havelian last year, were due to the pilots’ mistake and their “error of judgment”.

The minister said the pilots were responsible for Air Blue crash in 2010, Bhoja Air crash in 2012 and the last year crash landing of a plane in Gilgit. He said Air Blue and Bhoja Air crashes occurred due to “human error and various breaches of flying discipline”. He said the technical fault in the Chitral incident was “so complicated” that the plane manufacturer itself had not been able to reach a conclusion yet.

The minister, however, promised that its inquiry report would be presented in August.

Later, speaking at a news conference, Mr Khan said 860 pilots had been serving in PIA, Air Blue, Serene Air, private flying clubs and also in foreign airlines. He said a senior officer having a good repute had been appointed to verify the licences and to check academic qualification of the pilots.

Besides the departmental actions, he said criminal proceedings would also be initiated against those having suspicious licences and exams.

“Unfortunately, the pilots are so influential that nobody can question them over anything. However, monitoring of employees has started on a daily basis on which strict actions will be taken”, he said.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2020