Blowing in the wind

Passenger aircraft manoeuvring in an airport on its tyres on the tarmac is a familiar sight; but how does one react to the rare sight of a stipulated 50-minute domestic passenger aircraft in the Indian sky, with all its tyres (or undercarriage) hanging in the air, un-retracted, flying low and slow from a state commercial hub to the capital of a country of 1.27 billion people? Ironic? Comical? A joke? Absurd? Yes, theoretically. But wait for the actual 'hanging tyre in the air' happening and visualize a most non-aviation like scenario.

By Abhijit Bhattacharyya
  • Published 17.10.15
  •  

Passenger aircraft manoeuvring in an airport on its tyres on the tarmac is a familiar sight; but how does one react to the rare sight of a stipulated 50-minute domestic passenger aircraft in the Indian sky, with all its tyres (or undercarriage) hanging in the air, un-retracted, flying low and slow from a state commercial hub to the capital of a country of 1.27 billion people? Ironic? Comical? A joke? Absurd? Yes, theoretically. But wait for the actual 'hanging tyre in the air' happening and visualize a most non-aviation like scenario.

A brand new twin-engine Boeing-787-800 Dreamliner takes off from Amritsar for Delhi in fair weather, daylight conditions, with little possibility of turbulence owing to the 'settled monsoon', with good visibility towards the horizon. In less than 40 seconds, the craft is airborne from the 3658-metre paved runway of Guru Ram Dass airport, Amritsar, and the pilot now presses the button to retract the undercarriage within 30 seconds of the lift. However, the undercarriage refuses to retract as the craft tries to continue gaining height, albeit slowly, to fly through its designated 'flight level', which normally is between 25000 and 30000 feet, in a short haul flight of one hour. It takes 15 minutes to climb, 15 minutes to descend and the rest 16-18 minutes for the 'cruising level'. All this owing to the fact that it is a short haul operation. Things could be totally different for long distance flight, however.

Reportedly the aircraft flew the full 400-kilometre distance with its undercarriage jutting out of the belly of the fuselage. The first point to note is that in such an odd configuration the plane must have guzzled enormous quantities of fuel, thereby making of that particular flight operation a total financial loss. Second, there is no way the aircraft would be able to gain the height on time owing to slower speed. Third, when an aircraft flies in such an un-aeroplane-like configuration, there certainly is no guarantee that the on-board sophisticated electronic and computer system would not malfunction without warning. Fourth, although it could be argued either way, perhaps it would have been better for the flight crew to have come back to Amritsar airport itself rather than flying all the 400 kilometres with an ex-prime minister and hundreds of passengers aboard when it was found that the undercarriage was not retracting. A malfunctioning undercarriage hardly takes any time to be detected as it has to be positioned within a minute of the lift of the aeroplane, and most of the times one may hear the noise of the retracting undercarriage when the craft is hardly 200-300 feet above ground level and within the airport boundary fencing.

Experts and aviation professionals, however, may question this view. But have we forgotten the Indian Airlines flight 440 operating with an Airbus 300-B2 (VT-EDV), with 257 on board, crash-landing on the paddy fields of Tirupati on Monday, November 15, 1993? Do we recall what happened and why? And how the authorities of the day found fault with the flying crew of that non-fatal crash?

It was a Madras-Delhi morning flight via Hyderabad. The first leg, Madras-Hyderabad, was 526 kilometres flying distance. Poor visibility did not allow the craft to land in spite of several attempts and, ultimately, when it was asked to go back, the pilots found a jammed flap which, in a way, corresponded to the 'jutting out' of a critical device of both the wings which are used for take-off as well as for landing. This malfunction upset the flight configuration of the craft which could neither gain height nor pick up speed thereby adversely affecting the fuel burn. The aircraft ran out of fuel, resulting in landing in the paddy field, just short of the tiny Tirupati airfield. Before that, of course, the flight crew had sought permission of the nearby air force stations for emergency landing, but were refused owing to combat aircraft exercise. Bad news followed, with the aircraft being a total wreck. However, the good news was that there was not a single casualty. Nevertheless, subsequent investigation put the blame on the pilots for their inability to visualize the possible outcome and monitor and calculate the fuel consumption of the craft. All because of a flap malfunction.

In this connection it must be remembered that in the November 1993 Tirupati crash the Airbus 300-B2 involved was a lighter aircraft, the maximum-take-off weight of which was 142 tons. In contrast, the July 2015 Boeing 787-800 Dreamliner's maximum take-off weight was 227 tons, although it must be admitted that the Amritsar-Delhi flight perhaps was much lighter than what the company would operate on long haul sectors. However, as the sophistication of the latter is much greater than the former's, the consequence of a sophisticated machine failure too goes a notch higher, it being likely to be more unpredictable than the manual and less automated machine. There lies the catch and the lurking danger.

Why is the Boeing 787-800 used by Air India so snag-prone? Why is it that it is not giving the promised dividend (as was estimated) during the time of the order for 27 aircraft placed by the then minister of civil aviation of India on December 30, 2005? Did the government of India have any penalty clause for delayed delivery of the aircraft? If so, has it been executed or has any delayed aircraft delivery order been cancelled? Why did Boeing 787-800 take six years eight months and six days to deliver the first aircraft on September 5, 2012? Numerous other uncomfortable questions could be raised. But the fact remains that never before in the history of independent India's civil aviation sector, an advanced and sophisticated passenger jet aircraft like the Boeing 787-800 faced such a long 'teething problem'.

The first passenger jet of India, Boeing 707, rendered useful service, the January 1966 Mont Blanc crash of Air India Kanchanjungha and a few more mishaps notwithstanding. Thereafter the short haul Boeing 737 too continued to be the workhorse of India's domestic market ever since its introduction (VT-EAG) on December 11, 1970. Although it gave several nasty fatal blows to Indian passengers, nevertheless it never faced a prolonged 'teething problem'. In the long haul segment, the Boeing 747 continues to fly with great elan, taking the VVIPs of India from Brazil to Beijing, Moscow to Melbourne and New Delhi to New York. However, the 'best of the best' trophy, from the point of view of safety record, goes to Airbus 300. That is one flying machine which never killed a single person during its operation life of 31 years (1976-2007). There were two accidents: in September 1986 on the runway of Madras and the Tirupati landing in a paddy field in November 1993; all survived, complete destruction of both aircraft notwithstanding. Hence the recent Amritsar-Delhi "open-undercarriage flight" is a warning which should be taken seriously by the aviation mandarins of India. Aviation has no runners-up. It is only for the champions.