THE preliminary report into the PK-8303 air crash largely bears out earlier suspicions; but it has also thrown up more questions.

Some of them, it is hoped, will be answered in the final report as this is an ongoing investigation, and little to no analysis can be expected at this point. Other questions, pertaining to more fundamental aspects of commercial aviation in Pakistan, are not part of the investigation’s purview but they demand a separate, brutally honest, solution-driven inquiry.

PK-8303 was flying from Lahore to Karachi on May 22 when it crashed 1,340m from the runway threshold in its second attempt at landing. The first one had seen it come in with its landing gear retracted, engines furiously scraping the tarmac and sparks flying. The pilots’ decision to do a ‘go around’ turned out to be disastrous because, as per the report, the engines show evidence of having been damaged in the belly landing.

The aircraft, unable to maintain the required height, crashed minutes later in a nearby residential locality. Ninety-seven people on board, and later one person on the ground, lost their lives. Two passengers miraculously survived.

According to the aviation minister, “overconfident pilots” and air traffic control officials were responsible for the crash. The findings thus far do indicate catastrophic mismanagement in the approach protocol.

The crew, to quote the report, “did not follow standard callouts” and when the ATC advised them twice to discontinue the approach on account of excessive height, the “landing approach was not discontinued”.

Moreover, air traffic control officials who witnessed the “scrubbing” of the engines with the runway “did not convey this abnormality to the aircraft”. Some inexplicable actions by the crew will certainly be probed further. For instance, why did the pilots lower the landing gear at 2,200m only to retract it at 530m?

The crew may also have been distracted instead of focusing single-mindedly on their approach to Karachi; according to the minister, they were discussing the pandemic even during the landing phase. Moreover, the co-pilot appears to have made no attempt to correct the captain or counter his decisions in any way. All in all, there was a total failure of crew resource management on the flight deck.

The PK-8303 crash did not happen in a vacuum: it is inextricably linked to the rot within PIA and its regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority. When the aviation minister presented the preliminary investigation report before the National Assembly, he also made a shocking revelation that of 860 active pilots in the country, 262 had appeared in exams through proxies.

So far, he said, PIA has decided to ground 150 of its pilots for possessing ‘dubious’ licences issued by CAA. There must be a root-and-branch overhaul of both organisations and the problems that bedevil them — or else another tragedy like that which befell PK-8303 is inevitable.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2020

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