Air India crash: Pilot error or dangerous Mangalore airport?

'This was no accident,' says an environmental group that sued to stop construction of an additional runway at Mangalore International Airport, where an Air India Express plane crashed Saturday. The crash killed 158 passengers, but eight survived.

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    An earth remover cleans the site of the Air India Express plane crash in Mangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Sunday. Investigators sifted through the rubble Sunday for the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder after India's worst air disaster in more than a decade.
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Mangalore International Airport's hilltop landing field, and the authorities who oversaw its operations, are coming under scrutiny following the Air India Express plane crash Saturday that killed 158 passengers.

Air India Express Flight IX-812 from Dubai reportedly overshot the runway, touching down at the end of the landing strip, then veered into a concrete structure that clipped a wing off the plane before it plunged into a valley. Only eight survived out of 160 passengers and six crew. Air India Express is the budget airline under the government-operated national carrier, Air India.

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Search continued for the plane's black box recorder on Sunday, reports Reuters. While local newspaper Hindustan Times today reports the black box found, the Times of India today reports that the black box has yet to be located but authorities have recovered the cockpit voice recorder.

The Times of India offers a complete list of those on the plane.

When the crash occurred the weather was clear, the jet was relatively new, and the airport had no previous flight accidents, leading officials to speculate pilot error. However, the airport itself has come under fire for more than a decade for its position on a hilltop plateau.

'No accident'

“This was no accident," the Environmental Support Group states in a press release, "but the direct result of deliberate failure of officials at the highest level in the Director General of Civil Aviation, Airports Authority of India, Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Government of Karnataka [administrations] for allowing this 2nd runway to be built in criminal negligence of applicable norms and standards. Such a strong charge is being made as the likelihood of this kind of a crash (the worst case scenario) was predicted.”

The Environment Support Group sued twice to stop the airport’s expansion, arguing that a newly built runway did not comply with national or international standards. The High Court dismissed the suits, and the Supreme Court in February 2003 dismissed "Environment Support Group and ors. vs. Union of India and ors."

"...No one in authority cared to listen to our fervent pleas," the ESG states. "This even when we demonstrated through a variety of representations that that the site chosen for expansion at Bajpe was surrounded by deep valleys on three sides of the runway and did not provide for emergency landing areas as required."

Union Aviation Minister Praful Patel said the pilots were highly experienced. "The pilot had 10,200 hours of flying experience. Of these, he had 7,000 hours as a pilot in command and had over 2,000 hours on a Boeing plane. He was also familiar with Mangalore airport and had flown in and out several times," Mr. Praful Patel is quoted in India's NDTV news.

Another Indian official said that there have been 36,000 take offs and landings on this air field without an accident, until now.

But pilot error could not be ruled out. The airport in Mangalore, in the Western Ghats, never before had a airplane crash, despite the difficulty of landing there. “This particular incident appears like a pilot error,” Sanat Kaul, a former aviation official who also once was on Air India’s board of directors, told The New York Times.

Looming problems

This was India's deadliest plane crash over a decade. The 1996 mid-air collision of Saudi Arabian Airlines and Kazakhstan Airlines killed 349 people. Crashes in 2000 and 2009 killed 60 and 21, respectively.

The incident points to larger, looming troubles within India's aviation industry, The New York Times reports:

"The accident focused attention on India’s booming but troubled aviation industry, one that reflects the contradictions of a nation with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies but where electricity is irregular and clean water scarce, and many people struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day. Start-up commercial airlines have grown exponentially here in recent years. The number of domestic air passengers has tripled in the last five years, and the number of international passengers traveling to and from the country has doubled."

Endemic corruption is also a worry. New Indian pilots can log fewer hours than their American counterparts before receiving their license, and even then the Indian pilots are known to cut corners.

“Basically you pay the flight schools a lot of money” and in return they give you a license, one new commercial pilot in New Delhi told the Times. Trainee pilots sometimes pay others to fly the required hours on their behalf.

Eight passengers survive

India's news station NDTV highlights that eight passengers "miraculously" survived the crash. When the plane split open on the edge of the cliff, some passengers jumped out before it crashed into the valley, according to NDTV.

"The pilot suddenly braked after landing. The aircraft hit something, burst into flames and fell apart. Four-five of us fell out when this happened so we were saved," survivor Stalin Mayakutti told NDTV.

A team of Boeing officials and US forensic scientists are slated to arrive in India Tuesday to help with the recovery and reconstruction efforts, according to the Times of India. 

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