Mangalore/ Mumbai / new Delhi: Investigators continued their search on Sunday for a key part of the black box of an Air India (AI) Express Boeing 737-800 that crashed in Mangalore, killing 158 passengers and crew, as indications emerged that the pilot may have attempted to take off again soon after landing on the airport runway.
A probe team found the cockpit voice recorder, which records the conversation among the pilots as well as between the pilots and the air-traffic control; and the digital flight data acquisition unit, which stores data on the aircraft, such as engine performance, speed and gravitational forces it encountered, for a short period, an official statement said.
But it is yet to find the digital flight data recorder, which stores around 100 hours of such data. Finding it is key to determining the cause of the air crash, India’s worst in more than a decade.
Crash site experts sifted through the wreckage and collected some parts, but were still to find the recorder, which forms the black box along with the recovered cockpit voice recorder and the digital flight data acquisition unit. “It is not possible to give any reason for the crash unless we find the black box,” said Peter Abraham, Mangalore airport director.
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The AI Express flight carrying 166 people, including the crew, from Dubai crashed while negotiating a tricky landing at Mangalore’s “table-top” airport overlooking a ravine. Eight people survived, mostly by jumping out of the plane that broke into two after crashing.
An investigator who inspected the mangled cockpit at the crash site said the plane’s throttle had been pushed up. “The pilot would have realized the landing (strip) was too short and tried to take off,” said the investigator, who declined to be identified citing confidentiality reasons. He said there was evidence in the photographs of the cockpit, which was opened using metal cutters.
The pilots of large passenger planes made by Boeing Co. and Airbus SAS use the throttles, or thrust levers, to control the aircraft engines.
The civil aviation ministry said in a statement the plane had landed slightly beyond the runway’s touchdown zone at a time when visibility was around 6km.
Experts from aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), AI and Boeing were involved in the search for the black box. The investigator cited above said it could take up to a week to analyse the data of the black box.
“The investigation process is on. It is at the stage of collection of wreckage, records and all those things. To begin with, director air safety Bir Singh Rai will be the inspector of accidents for the investigation,” DGCA chief Nasim Zaidi told Mint from Mangalore. “There are 140-150 parameters which will be of interest to the investigators. Like how much takeoff power did the pilot use..., was the pilot correct in choosing that power for that day?,” said a senior airline safety official with three decades of experience who declined to be named.
According to London-based aviation consultancy Ascend Worldwide Ltd, airline accidents globally have killed at least 350 passengers since January so far this year. “Unfortunately, ...sometimes air crashes happen. We don’t know the circumstances and I am sure in this too, like in every investigation, there will be some recommendations that should be implemented,” Paul Hayes, safety director at Ascend, said in a phone interview.
The Boeing 737-800 aeroplane overshot the runway, hit a barricade and a localizer—an instrument landing system that aids in landing and was located near the runway. It lost a wing and an engine in the impact and then slipped down a ravine before bursting into flames.
Survivors of the early morning crash described commotion, noise and smoke as the tumbling aircraft slipped through thick vegetation and split into two.
“They put some of us in motorbikes and in jeeps and sent us to hospitals,” said Abdul Ismail Puttur, one of the survivors, who pulled two others from the debris. Soon after they jumped out of the plane, there was a huge explosion.
Environmental Support Group, a non-governmental agency, said it had cautioned civil aviation authorities, including the courts in India, that the Mangalore airport runway did not conform to standards that needed space of at least 1km for rescue operations if there was an accident. “If there was more open space, the plane may (have) overshot and landed on its belly. The aircraft may have been damaged, but at least you could have saved lives,” said the investigator mentioned above.
No snags had been noticed in the passenger jet, which was delivered to AI in January 2008.
Both pilots were experienced and had flown into Mangalore together on 17 May, AI’s director for personnel, Anup Srivastava, told reporters in Mumbai on Saturday. Zaidi said it was premature to talk about a court of inquiry and if a high court judge will be appointed to conduct it.
Saturday’s crash was the worst in India since a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collided with a Kazakhstan Airlines jet in November 1996, killing all 349 on board. In India’s last major air disaster, a Boeing 737-200 crashed into a residential area while approaching Patna airport in Bihar in July 2000.
Reuters and Bloomberg contributed to this story.