Air India Express accident at Calicut was facilitated by the regulator, how?

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  Air India Airbus Landing at Port Blair (Source Dr Puneet) Blaming the pilots alone for an accident is like addressing the symptom rather than the root cause. The root cause of the Calicut accident of IX1344 on 7th Aug 2020 is the poor safety culture prevalent in India and the ineffective regulatory oversight. This landing(YouTube video) can be categorized as a deliberate attempt to endanger the lives of passengers and crew. This is not the Calicut landing but a landing at another critical airport where most of the year the airport experiences tailwinds. Since the airport has a unidirectional runway ( landing from one direction only), the flight crew has no option but to land in tailwinds. The situation worsens during the monsoons when there is a tailwind and the runway is wet and braking action reduces. Action has not been taken either by the regulator or by the airline safety. Why? What is the role of the regulator? The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is the regulatory

Spicejet bends all rules to fly to Gangtok airport risking lives, in the wake of Calicut accident

Approach at Pakyong airport


The cosy relationship between SpiceJet and the Indian aviation regulator stands exposed when each day passengers and crew fly to and from from Pakyong airport built on a table top with hills on one side and a deep valley on the other. Whereas passengers are oblivious to the risks involved with the flight that they are traveling on, the crew are living on a prayer that they come back safely.

Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim which is the home to glaciers, alpine meadows and thousands of varieties of wildflowers. Steep paths lead to hilltop Buddhist monasteries such as Pemayangtse, which dates to the early 1700s. Access to Gangtok has always been by road which takes five hours to reach from the nearest airport, which is Baghdogra. Sikkim is also of strategic importance due to its location. The construction of an airport at Pakyong near Gangtok would therefore would hold much importance and with the inauguration of the airport by the Prime Minister in Sept 2018, marked the culmination of the Sikkim dream of air connectivity.

However, this dream was short lived since the airport could not be used for 18 months due to operational reasons. The airport is a table top runway set amidst high hills. The airport is at a height of 4600ft and a hill on one side and steep drop on the other side. The construction of the airport was an engineering challenge since the slopes had to be flattened without disturbing the earth stability and flow of water through the natural channels. The project cost was approx INR 605 Cr.

The airport was initially a Visual Flight Rules airport since there was no instrument approach procedure designed which would aid the pilots to descend in less than 5km visibility. The width of the runway is 30m wide and is suitable for an aircraft like the ATR which has a narrow wheel base having the wheels directly under the belly of the aircraft. The same goes for the taxiway when the aircraft vacates the runway to reach the terminal building.

The problem

Visibility in the hills is not always the best to meet with the requirements of the airport where the hills are too close to the runway that the pilots must at all times have the hills in sight and visually avoid them. Since the visibility wasn't favorable, the airport couldn't be used for 18 months till an aircraft based approach was designed.


Runway Safety Area


The video of the approach at Pakyong airport highlights the proximity of the hills making it unsafe to fly. The aircraft terrain avoidance systems continuously warn the pilots of the unsafe situation but despite that SpiceJet still flies to Pakyong and the regulator allows.



Runway safety area  is defined as "the surface surrounding the runway prepared or suitable for reducing the risk of damage to airplanes in the event of an excursion from the runway. The International Conventions and the Indian regulator mandates that this safety area shall be 140m wide however, Pakyong runway has only 80m of safety area. This means that in the eventuality of an aircraft going off the sides of the runway, there is inadequate protection.

Narrow Runway width

The width of the runway is 30m whereas the aircraft currently flown in and out of the airport is a SpiceJet Dash8-Q400. The international conventions and the Indian regulator mandates that the aircraft of such dimensions that of a Q400 requires a runway 45m wide. This would mean that in the eventuality of an engine failure on takeoff, the aircraft might go off the runway. The wheels of the Q400 are placed under the engines which are farther apart than say an ATR which have the wheels under the belly.

 The width of the wheel base of a Q400 is more than an Airbus A320. The aerodrome design manual issued by the aircraft manufacturer states that the runway width required for the Dash8-Q400 is 45m. The European regulator has refused permission to the manufacturer to allow operation of flight at airport with width less than 45m since the figure has been the outcome of detailed research by international bodies and safety could not be compromised with.

European regulator denying Dash8 manufacturer to operate with reduced requirements


Narrow Taxiway width

The width of the taxiway is 18m whereas the Spicejet Q400 aircraft requires 23m as per International conventions and the Indian regulator. The operator simply cautions the pilots to be careful while taxying to avoid going off the taxiway.

Incorrect Categorised Approach procedure

The aircraft based instrument procedure is designed for CAT A/B aircrafts. This category is allocated as per the approach speed of the aircraft. The SpiceJet Q400 aircraft flown is categorized as CAT C as per all other regulators but for reasons unknown the Indian regulator has designated the Q400 under CAT B. This means that the aircraft might not adhere with the instrument approach requirements.

FAA(USA REGULATOR) CATEGORISATION


Manipulated Visibility requirements

The visibility requirement as per the Indian regulations for an approach at Pakyong with high hills in the vicinity is 4100m whereas the Indian regulator has approved SpiceJet to operate the Q400 even when the visibility is poorer than 4100m down to an astonishing 2400m. The regulations do not permit the aircraft to land unless the visibility at the airport is 4100m or greater so that the pilots can see the runway and the hills around from a distance. The lower than regulations minimum risk the pilots closer to the hills making it highly unsafe.

Conclusion

The Pakyong airport is a vital link and a great engineering feat in terms of the challenges overcome in the construction of the airport. The airport, however is not designed or meets the requirement of the aircraft flown by SpiceJet. It is a clear violation of international conventions and Indian regulations. It is unsafe to operate the Dash8-Q400 aircraft as have the international regulators deemed it unfit to operate on an airport with the dimensions that of Pakyong airport.

The nexus of the operator and regulator stands exposed but surprisingly, the blatant violation of regulations in the wake of the unfortunate accident of Air India Express IX1344 at Calicut in 2020 goes unchecked.There is no agency which is willing to bell the cat and take a decision in the interest of public safety. Whereas the Indian regulator has been infamous for suspending pilot licenses at the drop of a hat even without investigation post an incident, the question arises is what are we waiting for at Pakyong?


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