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Beauty belies tricky runway

Mangalore, May 22: For passengers landing at Mangalore airport, it cannot get more picturesque.

On one side are the choppy waves of the Arabian Sea and on the other three are lush green surroundings — small hills with swaying coconut trees. The view is so easy on the eye that it is certain to make the passenger wholly unaware of the extremely difficult landing that the plane is about to make.

For the pilots, however, it cannot get any trickier. The runway is located on the top of a plateau with either end stopping abruptly and dropping into deep gorges. Pilots call it a “tabletop runway”.

“It is virtually like landing on a large tabletop, knowing very well that you cannot get too close to the edges,” an Air India pilot who has flown that sector frequently said.

Such a runway creates an optical illusion, which means the pilot cannot approach either too high or too low. “So he has to make a very precise approach. And if it is raining with a gust of wind, the landing becomes even more dicey because the pilot has to guard against hydroplaning (skidding on a wet runway). He has no buffer zone at the end of the runway to arrest the aircraft’s uncontrolled progress,” the pilot said.

A buffer zone is an extended portion of the runway with a large sand trap. Its end is so even that if an aircraft overshoots while landing, it will plunge into the soft stand and come to a halt without much damage. But on Mangalore’s tabletop, where two runways have been squeezed atop the plateau, there is no such luxury of a buffer zone.

It is for this reason that the directorate general of civil aviation has prescribed additional training for pilots landing and taking off from table-top runways such as those in Mangalore and to some extent, in nearby Kozhikode.

Mangalore airport is located about 20km from Mangalore city and 350km from Bangalore.

There are two runways at the airport. The old runway is 6,000ft long and the new one, which became operational in 2006, is 8,000ft. The new runway can handle the wide-bodied Airbus. The new terminal building was inaugurated on May 15 by Union civil aviation minister Praful Patel.

In spite of its tricky location, Mangalore airport has had an excellent safety record with no major accidents reported.

“Let us give credit to the skill and expertise of the pilots who have navigated this runway without any major mishap. Mangalore airport had an unblemished record till today,” the Air India pilot said.

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