Mumbai/New Delhi, Sept. 21: A Jet Airways plane was today allowed to come within a cricket pitch and a half’s distance of a mid-air collision with fighter jets, hours before an Indian Airlines flight aborted landing after its pilot saw another plane on the runway.
The back-to-back close shaves in Rajkot and Delhi, credited to the pilots’ quick-thinking, served up pointers to how the domestic aviation boom has stretched the country’s airport infrastructure close to buckling.
It was around 8.30 am when the pilot of 9W 345, Jet’s Mumbai-Rajkot flight with 104 on board, sent an emergency message to the Ahmedabad ATC that it was face-to-face with a formation of Indian Air Force fighters.
Ahmedabad immediately asked the pilot, who was getting ready to land and was at a height of 22,500 feet, to haul the Boeing 737 up to 23,000 feet.
“The planes were within 100 feet (33 yards) of each other,” an Ahmedabad ATC source said, joining Jet in blaming the Rajkot ATC for the near-miss.
The sudden thrust to gain height led to an engine snag but the Boeing landed safely at Rajkot before being grounded.
Some 12 hours later, IC-168 from Mumbai was set to land in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport when the pilot spotted the other plane. He made a quick announcement and turned into a sharp climb “shocking” the passengers, one of the 150 on board said. The Airbus A320 landed after 20 minutes.
An airline spokesman, however, said: “It was a normal flight. The aircraft later took off for Calcutta.”
A livid Jet said the Rajkot ATC had failed to inform the pilot that an air force exercise involving Sukhoi-30s, Operation Gagan Shakti, would be on at the time.
“The Rajkot ATC gave the pilot the go-ahead to use route number W-61, which was also being used by the IAF at the very same time. It’s a gross negligence; we’ll take it up at the highest level,” spokesperson Srirupa Sen said.
The IAF ordered a probe but refused to call it a near-miss, saying “the fighter aircraft did not pose any threat to the civil airliner as they were under the control of ground radar and in visual contact”.
IAF aircraft flying in formation are on the visual mode but civil aircraft following designated routes rely solely on instruments and the pilots need not look outside.
The Jet pilot said he first saw the Sukhois when they were 500 feet away, though a plane’s Traffic Collision Avoidance System is supposed to give its first warning when two aircraft are within six nautical miles of each other.