Saviour airplane breaks into two in Kerala
An Air India Express repatriation flight from Dubai skidded off a wet tabletop runway, dropped 40 feet, smashed into a wall and broke into two after landing during heavy rain at the Calicut International Airport in north Kerala on Friday, killing at least 18 people.
Among the dead were the Vande Bharat flight’s captain-in-command, Deepak Vasanth Sathe, his co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar and an 18-month-old child, officials said in Kerala.
The impact of the crash completely destroyed the cockpit and ripped the fuselage until the front door, the officials said. Most of the dead were in the front seats.
Out of the 190 people on board, all survivors have been admitted to two hospitals. It was not clear if each suffered injuries or whether some have been hospitalised as a precautionary measure. The Boeing 737 was carrying 184 passengers, two pilots and four cabin crew members.
The flight was carrying several people who had lost their jobs, suggested a purported Vande Bharat passenger list which mentions the “compelling” reason for travel during the pandemic outbreak.
Based on preliminary accounts, aviation veterans suggested the first attempt to land amid heavy rain was aborted and the accident took place during the second attempt. The veterans added that landing requires more runway length if rain has made the surface slippery.
Tabletop runways — called so because one or both of their ends could be adjacent to a steep precipice — are usually shorter than the others.
In May 2010, an Air India Express from Dubai had overshot a similar tabletop runway in Mangalore, Karnataka, fallen into a deep valley and burst into flames, killing all but 8 of the 166 on board.
Many among the 190 people on board suffered limb fractures; some had head and neck injuries. As many as 10 infants were on the plane, and a mother and her child were critical.
It was a "miracle" that so many had survived, Riaz, who is from the neighbourhood, told reporters, adding that heavy rain had left the runway slippery when the 7.41pm accident happened.
Passengers with minor injuries told reporters from various hospitals that the flight had hovered over the airport once before landing.
"I felt the wheels touching down before realising that the aircraft was going down. Luckily, I was seated at the emergency exit. I opened the door and jumped out of the aircraft and ran until some local people took me to hospital," said a young passenger named Riyaz.
The aircraft stopped after slamming into the boundary wall of the airport compound, located in a valley, about 40 feet below the runway.
The cabin crew members were identified as Shilpa Katare, Akshay Pal Singh, Lalit Kumar and Abhik Biswas. Some of them are injured, the officials said.
The airport is called Calicut International Airport after the old name of Kozhikode, the most important city in north Kerala. But the airport is actually located at Karippur in the neighbouring Malappuram district.
"We rescued everyone (injured) in an hour and 15 minutes, except two people who got stuck at the tail section of the aircraft," Malappuram collector K. Gopalakrishnan told reporters at the accident site. He later said the two had been rescued too.
He said that fire and rescue teams had averted a worse disaster by dousing the aircraft and the whole area with water.
A statement from the directorate-general of civil aviation said the Boeing 737 had skidded all the way to the perimeter of the airport after touchdown and dropped into a valley.
People from nearby towns rushed to the spot with whatever vehicles they could marshal and helped the emergency services extricate passengers caught in the mangled fuselage.
Riaz, the resident from the neighbourhood who was among those who carried the injured to hospital, said: "It's a miracle how so many passengers and crew were swiftly evacuated."
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has assigned the minister for local bodies, A.C. Moideen, to coordinate the rescue operations.
"All hospitals have been instructed to provide the best medical care," health minister Shailaja told a television channel.
Television footage showed rescue workers moving around the wreckage in pouring rain, Reuters reported. Some of the passengers lay motionless on stretchers, brought into a hospital surrounded by health workers wearing masks because of the Covid-19 protocol.
Air India Express AXB1344 was bringing back Indians stranded abroad because of the pandemic-induced restrictions on international travel.
"Pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode," Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
Help centres were being set up in Sharjah and Dubai, PTI reported quoting the civil aviation ministry.
All flights to Kozhikode will be diverted to Kannur until further notice.
The probe into the 2010 Mangalore crash had found that the captain had misjudged the height while landing, resulting in the flight overshooting the runway located on a plateau.
Additional reporting by PTI and Reuters