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Bid to hush up mid-air near miss

May 14, 2012


KARACHI, May 14: A massive cover-up operation has been launched to push under the rug a serious air safety issue involving two PIA airplanes flying out from the country’s biggest airport that came dangerously close to each other and were in a near miss situation, it emerged on Monday.

According to highly placed sources, the mid-air collision was averted by seconds when a pilot of one of the aircraft turned away.

Although the incident was confirmed by the pilots’ representative body as well as air traffic controllers, who apparently were at fault, the Pakistan International Airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority expressed ignorance about it. One of the pilots involved in the incident termed it an “internal matter” and refused to comment on it.

The sources said that the PIA and the CAA, at present headed by a PIA pilot, joined hands to cover up the issue so that the country’s air safety standards were not exposed.

They said that a high-level inquiry into the incident should be instituted to know the facts and to ensure air safety by taking necessary steps.

The sources said that on Thursday a Multan-bound PIA flight (PK-550), using an ATR aircraft (registration No AP-BHI), flew from the Jinnah International Airport and soon it was followed by another PIA flight (PK-306) going to Lahore, using a Boeing-747 (registration No AP - BFV).

They said as Boeing was a relatively bigger and faster aircraft it soon caught up with the smaller ATR aircraft and when both the aircraft were roughly 25 nautical miles away northeast of Karachi they came very close to each other.

The ATR was flying at an altitude of around 14,000 feet while the Boeing-747 was flying at around 13,700 feet and there was a height difference of about a mere 300 feet, which was very close since the safe height difference between two aircraft was said to be at least 1,000 feet, the sources added.

They said the distance between the two aircraft was also around four miles, whereas the least safe distance was said to be at least five miles. Luckily, the pilot of the B-747 saw the smaller aircraft so close and immediately turned left to avoid a possible collision.

Sources in the air traffic control confirmed the incident on the condition of anonymity.

They said while they were not trying to justify the near miss the real reason was that the air traffic controllers were overburdened with work and that they had been working with obsolete equipment. It was sheer luck that this near miss did not turn into a mid-air collision, they added.

They said the pilot of the ATR aircraft, Capt Humayoon Wahid, had filed a report of the incident with the CAA.

They said that a few days back a similar near miss incident had occurred near Lahore but it had gone unreported.

Responding to Dawn queries, Pakistan Airlines Pilots Association chief Sohail Baloch said that he was aware of the near miss incident.

He said that not only Palpa, but the international organisation of pilots had also expressed concern over the working conditions of the air traffic controllers, and the obsolete equipment.

He suggested that rather than taking stern action against the controllers at fault, non-punitive reporting culture be promoted so that people did not fear any action and reported the issue so that it was highlighted and eventually solved and as a result the air travel became safer.

Mr Wahid, the ATR aircraft pilot, termed it an internal matter of the organisation and suggested that the PIA be contacted on the issue.

PIA media adviser Tahir Khalique said that no such incident could occur, as the ATR flew at a lesser height whereas B-747 flew at a higher altitude.

CAA spokesperson Pervez George told Dawn that no such incident had occurred. However, when he was informed that the report of at least one of the pilots had also been sent to the CAA, he said if any such report came to the CAA an inquiry would be instituted and stern action would be taken if anyone was found involved in it.