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Pilot's horror: hole on runway - Two craters stall landing operations

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 26.04.12
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Pilots need to be as watchful of craters on Calcutta airport’s twin runways as drivers are of potholes on city roads.

Flights stopped landing at the airport for more than half an hour on Wednesday afternoon after the pilots of a Jet Airways aircraft bound for Bagdogra spotted a crater on the main runway while taking off at 12.36pm and alerted air traffic control.

The crater alert came less than 18 hours after a ground maintenance team detected a gaping hole about a feet in length and breadth at the intersection of the secondary runway and taxiway A near its southern end on Tuesday evening.

The previous night’s Nor’wester and procedural hassles on Wednesday apparently delayed repairs on the secondary runway until 12.04pm, triggering a rare instance of both runways being shut in the middle of a busy day once the second crater was discovered.

No flight landed at the airport between 12.41pm and 1.16pm, officials said.

As many as 11 incoming aircraft were forced to hover above the city for more than half an hour and another — an unscheduled flight from Sharjah to Calcutta — was diverted to Dhaka as repairs were hurriedly carried out on the secondary runway.

Work on the main runway started at 1.20pm, four minutes after the secondary one was reopened for flight operations.

A part of the main runway had been kept open for flights to take off from the southern end even as landing was stalled. “Aircraft due to take off during that period used taxiways C and D,” an official said.

“We are examining the cause of damage to the surface of the runways. Both have undergone repairs and are now fit for operations,” airport director B.P. Sharma said after the repaired main runway was cleared for flight operations at 6.15pm.

“The wheels of an aircraft landing or making a sharp turn while taxiing could have caused the surface to peel off,” Sharma added.

The crater spotted by the Jet Airways pilots 754 metres from the edge of the main runway on the northern side was around five feet in length and one-and-a-half feet in breadth. It was a few inches deep, according to an official.

“The point where the damage was detected has a turning path for aircraft. We have noticed that pilots often don’t use the full length of a runway and take sharp turns to save fuel,” he said.

An aviation safety expert said a crater on any part of a runway was a hazard for planes landing or taking off.

“The touchdown point of an aircraft is 300 metres from the edge of the runway. The crater detected on the main runway was barely 450 metres from any landing aircraft’s touchdown point,” he pointed out.

So isn’t runway maintenance all about quickly detecting and repairing such hazards?

“A 24-hour maintenance break a month is mandatory for a runway, but we often have to do with much less for want of coordination among various departments,” the official said.

Airport director Sharma contested the allegation. “Maintenance has never been an issue,” he said.

In June 2009, a Lufthansa flight that had covered Frankfurt to Calcutta in nine hours had to delay landing by more than four hours because of a crater on the northern end of the main runway.

In August the previous year, the main runway had to be shut for more than an hour after a crater was detected.

The last time the main runway was completely re-laid was in 2003-04.