Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel has accepted moral responsibility for Saturday's crash of an Air India plane at the Mangalore airport, but avoided answering a question whether he offered to resign at a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“As head of the civil aviation family, I feel very saddened, anguished and personally [and] morally responsible that such a tragic incident has taken place. I have conveyed my deep sense of anguish to the Prime Minister,” he told journalists soon after meeting Dr. Singh.

He briefed the Prime Minister on returning from the site where the Air India Express flight IX 812 from Dubai crashed, killing 158 persons. Asked what directives the Prime Minister gave him, Mr. Patel said Dr. Singh too was deeply shocked and saddened, but told him to face the situation and take corrective measures.

Mr. Patel said the second runway, which was used by the ill-fated aircraft, had been made operational in 2006, and its friction quotient was tested only recently. “Winds were calm, weather was fine and the visibility was about six km. The runway was completely dry, and on a normal day, all these parameters were perfect for a normal landing. But it appears that the aircraft overshot its threshold point of landing on the runway, and since the Mangalore airport is a table-top one, on the top of a hill, the aircraft plunged into a valley.”

Mr. Patel said the 8000-foot runway was sufficient for aircraft such as the Boeing 737-800 to land, and was equipped with all navigational and instrument landing systems. It would not be fair to say safety concerns were ignored when the airport was constructed.

Experienced pilots

He said the Air India Express aircraft was less than two-and-a-half years old and both pilots were experienced and familiar with the topography of the airport.

“The reason for the aircraft overshooting the runway can be known only after the completion of the high-level inquiry ordered by the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation.” Mr. Patel, who also met the eight survivors, said they were seated all across the aircraft and managed to unlock their seat belts and rush to safety even as the flames were slowly engulfing the aircraft.

Discounting reports that the pilots were unfamiliar with the topography of the airport, Civil Aviation Secretary Madhavan Nambiar said Captain Z. Glusica, 53, had a good deal of experience in operating in the terrain around Mangalore and was familiar with it. Co-pilot Captain H.S. Ahluwalia was, in fact, based at Mangalore and had logged 3,650 hours of flying. Air India Director (Personnel) Anup Srivastava said in Mumbai that Capt. Glusica's commercial pilot licence was endorsed by the DGCA.

He, along with Capt. Ahluwalia, last flew into the Mangalore airport on May 17. Capt. Ahluwalia joined Air India last April after quitting Jet Airways. Both pilots died in Saturday's crash. As for the runway, Mr. Nambiar said there had been 32,000 landings since 2006.

Earlier in Mangalore, Mr. Praful Patel told a press conference at the airport that the aircraft had been following the ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach for landing, and the pilot reported to the ATC that it had established itself on the ILS approach about 10 miles from touchdown.

Runway 24 is 2,450 metres long and has a safety/spillover area of 90 metres of sand designed to arrest the speed of an aircraft.Retracing the course of the events that led to the crash in the morning, Mr. Patel said the pilot overshot the runway and braked hard but could not stop the aircraft.

The right wing crashed against a localiser (a landing aide in the form of a concrete structure about 50 feet high). The aircraft then plummeted into a valley. “India has a long unblemished record in civil aviation and we are deeply shocked and pained by the crash.” He said, “Five survivors have said the pilot braked hard and the plane shook violently. Beyond the spillover area is a vertical drop into a thickly wooded area.”

No fatigue

The Minister dismissed suggestions that the pilot was fatigued, adding he had flown seven hours with a break in between. As for the possibility of ILS malfunction, he said all other functions of the aircraft “appear to be normal.” Allaying concerns at the quality of the runway, he said it was made of cement and concrete with a sufficient friction quotient.

The chances of recovery of the black box were high as the debris was concentrated in a small area, Mr. Patel said. The entire wreckage was found, and all 158 bodies have been recovered.

The bodies have been badly burnt and so it will take time for health officials to identify hand them over to relatives. According to the Montreal Convention, to which India is a signatory, $1,60,000 is the amount recommended as compensation to the family of an air crash victim. The injured will be treated at state expense and compensation will be commensurate with the extent of injury.

RELATED NEWS

158 killed as plane crashes at MangaloreMay 22, 2010

More In: National | News