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When the pilots were told mid-air the wheels had fallen off their air ambulance

The plane flopped on the runway on its belly with a screech that lasted half a minute before coming to a halt. Emergency services soon rushed in; water tankers sprayed the aircraft to avert fire. (Photo: AFP)Premium
The plane flopped on the runway on its belly with a screech that lasted half a minute before coming to a halt. Emergency services soon rushed in; water tankers sprayed the aircraft to avert fire. (Photo: AFP)

  • On 6 May, a flight took off from Nagpur with a covid patient. Unknown to the pilots, it had lost a wheel during takeoff
  • The aircraft manual, which the pilots usually rely on for response measures during an emergency, had no standard operating procedure when faced with a missing landing gear

NEW DELHI : Pilots of the Beechcraft KingAir C90B aircraft—an air ambulance managed by Jet Serve Aviation Pvt. Ltd—were stunned to hear the message from the Air Traffic Control (ATC) at Nagpur. They knew instantly that they were now working to avert disaster. In the cabin was a covid-19 patient hooked to oxygen support, being flown to Mumbai for treatment.

It was a warm evening on 6 May and the flight was 90 nautical miles (about 160 km) away from its destination, and had just burst through a rain cloud. The urgent call from the Nagpur ATC had a simple message: one wheel of their aircraft had fallen off during takeoff at 5 pm from Nagpur. The fallen wheel was the left back wheel and had been spotted by a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) constable, who had immediately reported the matter.

The lives of five people on board were at risk— the two pilots, the covid-19 patient, a doctor and a paramedic. Over the next couple of hours, the missing wheel would test the mettle and nerves of the pilots in the air, and also those of air traffic controllers, rescue crew and higher civil aviation decision makers on the ground at the Mumbai airport and elsewhere.

Even as the country dealt with the worst pandemic month on record, getting a covid patient to a medical facility was proving a challenge everywhere. The well heeled were hiring air ambulances to avail better treatment. Private air charter companies have, on average, operated about 120 flights a month during the pandemic. However, this number rose significantly during March to May 2021—due to a sudden surge in infections. For instance, Club One Air, one of the oldest and largest air charter firms in India, operated about 150 air ambulance flights during April and May. Thus, the Beechcraft aircraft, which was stuck in the sky with a missing wheel, was just one among scores of similar flights that have regularly crisscrossed across India since the onset of the pandemic. But the pilots quickly realized that they were in a unique situation, quite different from what is usually faced by Indian aviators who fly regular charter flight missions.

Confirming the worst

CISF head constable Ravi Kant Avala had been watching the aircraft take off from the runway at Nagpur airport. He noticed that one of the rear wheels had fallen off the moment the plane took off. The wheel rolled on the runway for some time before coming to a halt. After an initial inspection, Avala alerted his bosses.

It had already been a long day of flying for the pilots of the Beechcraft KingAir jet, registered as VT-JIL. The aircraft had taken off from Bagdogra in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district at 11.45 am, halting subsequently at Durgapur, where it had picked up the passengers, and then departed for Nagpur for a refuelling halt before heading for Mumbai shortly after 5 pm.

Captain Keshri Singh, a 52-year-old pilot who was commanding the aircraft, had piled up over 11,000 hours of flying experience since becoming a professional pilot in 1995. Yet, Singh had never been in such a situation before. Nor had his 32-year-old co-pilot Karan Phour, who had about 650 hours of experience.

“I have faced issues like a tyre burst and (maybe) jamming of landing gears. But, in my entire career, I never faced a situation where the whole wheel fell off. This was a very rare incident," said Singh, a Jaipur resident who moved to Gurugram last February after joining JetServe Aviation.

“At that time, we didn’t know that the wheel had fallen off as we didn’t have any indicator or sensor in the cockpit to alert us to such a situation," he said.

After receiving the ominous call, the pilots had put the Nagpur ATC in touch with the charter company’s engineering head and accountability manager to confirm whether the part discovered on the runway had indeed come off their aircraft.

The pilots had been unsure if the landing gear had actually fallen off during take-off because it was such a rare phenomenon. Officials at JetSet Aviation were also not able to come back with a confirmation immediately. The pilots, meanwhile, lost contact with the Nagpur ATC, having exited the contact range.

“We were not sure if the wheel had fallen off, if it was the nose wheel or (the) port wheel or (the) starboard wheel… or if it was the wheel assembly or the whole landing gear," Singh said.

Meanwhile, the Nagpur ATC relayed information about the rear wheel having come off the Beechcraft C-90 to its Mumbai counterpart, which got in touch with the pilots soon. The pilots wanted the Mumbai ATC to confirm whether the landing gear had indeed fallen off. So, they requested a low pass so that the ATC officers could confirm the suspicion.

A low approach is sometimes referred to as a low pass. It is essentially a manoeuvre that enables pilots to go around without touching down. “We were just at 200 feet over (the) Mumbai runway, with all the landing gears down… so that they (ATC) could have a closer look. The ATC confirmed that our port landing gear wheel was missing," captain Singh said.

“We realized we are in trouble," he added.

Belly landing

Typically, in emergencies, pilots are trained to follow the aircraft manual and tick off checklists. In this case, there were no such provisions. After scanning through the manual, the pilots found that no standard operating procedures existed, which could be followed in case a landing gear was missing.

“At that moment, we realized that we don’t have any other option but to go for a belly landing. We discussed this, although we had never done a belly landing before," said Singh.

Aviation is statistically the safest mode of transport but when things go wrong with a plane, a safe landing is also an exceedingly difficult task to accomplish.

“While training to be a pilot, I read books on aviation where I came across belly landing without wheels. But we were not trained to do this specifically, not even on a simulator," he said. “We also decided to seek advice from experts through the ATC… asking other senior pilots about how the situation could be handled," he added.

Meanwhile, senior executives at the Mumbai International Airport Limited, which operates the Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA), were quickly alerted to the developing emergency at the facility.

The Mumbai airport at the time was operating with lower than usual staffing amid the second wave of covid-19, which had necessitated a state-wide lockdown in Maharashtra. But officials moved quickly to scramble the airport’s emergency response team, which included fire and rescue responders, follow-me vehicles, CISF and a medical team.

“It was a tense moment as we were told about the developing situation," said a senior MIAL official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There were strong possibilities of fire and the runway needed to be secured, and lives needed to be saved. We were literally on our toes," the official added.

Mumbai airport authorities soon declared a full emergency. A full emergency is declared in a situation wherein an aircraft approaching the airport poses the risk of an accident. The key to performing a belly landing is to have the bare minimum amount of fuel in the tank in order to avoid a fire. When a chunk of metal hits the tarmac at high velocity, it would produce a lot of sparks and a tank with fuel could explode. After carrying out a low pass, the pilots eventually decided to fly over Mumbai for the next two hours to burn out the remaining fuel and minimize the risk of fire since there was no option to simply dump the fuel.

It was at this time that the pilots consulted experts and senior pilots about the evolving situation. Someone advised them to try using the nose landing gear and the right landing gear, which remained intact, to land the plane. It was deemed too risky because there was a chance that the aircraft might topple over during such a manoeuvre. “We contacted some senior pilots, who suggested that we go as per the checklist. But then, there was nothing on the checklist to prepare us for this. Someone also suggested ditching (water landing), which was again deemed too dangerous," said captain Singh.

“At that point, we decided to opt for a belly landing," he said. He was hoping for the best, yet fearing the worst, he said.

As the pilots hovered over Mumbai, they requested the ATC to spread foam on the runway to reduce the chances of fire. A team from the local bureau of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the commercial aviation regulator, arrived at the airport to monitor the emergency. Airport authorities demurred initially, citing insufficient stock of foam, but eventually agreed to spread foam on runway 27.

DGCA officials were communicating with the flight crew, seeking inputs on how far into the runway the pilots wanted the aircraft to proceed before emergency services like an ambulance and fire trucks were to be deployed.

The pilots confronted challenges of their own, which included keeping their passengers, including the covid-19 patient, calm amid the emergency landing. In fact, the patient was told about the situation only a few minutes before the landing as per the standard operating procedure. The doctor accompanying the patient was, however, informed about the evolving situation a little earlier.

“There were so many challenges. Initially, no foam was available. Secondly, it was nighttime, and we did not have lights on our wings but only on our nose landing gear. As we were going for a belly landing, we were basically landing without lights," Singh said.

“The ATC asked us to avoid landing on the central line of the runway as there were lights (aligned to them) which could catch fire upon contact with the fuselage. Also, since we were flying over the city for two hours to empty the fuel tank, we had just 5-10 minutes of fuel remaining and had to get the landing right," he said. The trick was to keep the speed to a minimum and avoid any fire hazard.

On their toes

Mumbai airport executives prepared the runway quickly before the aircraft ran out of fuel. As the plane approached the runway, and prepared for the landing, airport and DGCA officials held their breath. “At around 50 feet, we cut fuel supply to (the) engines, and prepared for landing. We adjusted the speed as we had to keep a minimum speed of about 80-85 knots while landing," said captain Singh.

At the end of a gentle glide path, the plane flopped on the runway on its belly with a loud screech that lasted half a minute before coming to a halt. Emergency services soon rushed in; water tankers sprayed the aircraft to avert fire. “We had a relatively smooth landing as it didn’t feel like our plane landed on its belly though our fuselage was in contact with the runway. Normally, we are sitting 8-10 feet above the runway with the wheels, but we were then sitting just 2-3 feet above the runway," he added. After a safe landing, the patient onboard was immediately transferred to Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital.

A month after the incident, what caused the plane to lose its rear landing gear still remains a mystery. Jet Serve Aviation didn’t respond to queries sent by Mint. When contacted, a DGCA spokesperson said that the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) was probing the incident. AAIB’s director general Aurobindo Handa said that the probe could take a considerable period of time. Air safety experts said the light weight of the aircraft and the wide dimensions of the Mumbai airport runway might have minimized the risk factor of the belly landing.

“These aircraft are made of aluminium, so chances of sparks being discharged which could cause a fire is less," said Amit Singh, an air safety expert, who was previously the chief of safety at AirAsia.

However, co-pilot Karan Phour pointed out that covid-19 had created unique difficulties. The aircraft, after all, was carrying oxygen cylinders, which the patient had required for breathing support but were also highly inflammable. The fire hazard didn’t come from the fuel in the belly alone.

“While landing, my entire focus was inside the cockpit, the instruments and the situation at hand," Phour said. “We had to be extremely careful so that the plane remained intact (without going off the runway). After touching the runway, the aircraft was moving slightly towards left, but we (somehow) managed to keep control," he added.

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