The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Plane in tarmac ‘red-ant’ hole

Calcutta, April 3: Passengers on board an Indian Airlines flight to Bangkok via Yangon had a big scare this morning when the rear right wheels sunk into the tarmac at Calcutta airport, bringing the Airbus 320 to an abrupt halt as it was taxiing for takeoff.

All 144 passengers on flight IC 727 were deplaned and, after a three-and-a-half-hour wait, put on another flight.

Shortly after 10 am, as the aircraft was gathering speed before reaching the main runway — around the time the airhostesses were explaining the safety regulations — there was a vibration that shook the entire aircraft and brought it to a halt.

As passengers panicked, the pilots began to check if there was an engine problem.

“The captain initially thought there was some problem with the aircraft, so he contacted the engineers at the airport,” said Indian Airlines deputy general manager K.G. Rajput. After a brief inspection, the engineers declared there was nothing wrong.

What had happened was that a portion of the tarmac had caved in under the weight of the plane, causing its rear right wheels to get stuck in a hole about one-foot deep.

“The aircraft was packed to capacity with passengers, fuel and baggage. The bitumen covering a patch of the tarmac had come loose and the bare soil could not hold the weight of the wheels,” Rajput explained.

A CISF patrol team that rushed to the spot found “a lot of red ants”.

“It is possible that they had eaten into the earth under the bitumen covering, leaving the top without any support, making it cave in easily,” a CISF official said.

After a new flight had left with all the passengers, the CISF personnel manning the airport were asked to find all such “probable accident zones” and fix them. The aircraft that got stuck was towed away to the hangar for inspections.

A senior official of the Airports Authority of India said though the incident was “unfortunate”, it was “minor”.

“Normally, we have devices to locate such breaches on the tarmac. In fact, even a piece of paper is not left lying around. But in this case, it is evident that it escaped the notice of all those responsible for maintenance,” he said.

“But after this incident, everyone is on high alert to ensure that this is not repeated,” the official added.

Civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain, who had a brief stopover at the city today, asked airport officials about the incident and told them to be more vigilant in future.

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