The horrific plane crash at Karipur Airport in Kerala’s Kozhikode on 7 August claimed 18 lives. Air India Express Flight IX-1344 from Dubai carrying 190 passengers skidded off the runway while landing.
To understand how difficult it is to land at Karipur Airport, a notorious table-top runway, in heavy rain, The Quint spoke to an Air India pilot, who has flown to this airport several times, on the condition of anonymity.
"“Karipur Airport is the scariest airport to land in the world. Pilots undergo special training before they start flying to this airport.”" - Air India Pilot
There are multiple reasons that make landing at Karipur Airport risky. we started by discussing some of the risks involved.
What are the inherent risks at Karipur Airport in Kozhikode? Isn’t the DGCA aware of these risks?
It has several inherent risks of which everyone in authority is aware of. Several pilots have already raised the issue with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). But no concrete steps have been taken so far. The flight safety department of Air India, that monitors pilots’ landing performance, has informed DGCA several times, in writing, about the problems faced by pilots while landing at Karipur Airport.
‘Table-Top' & A Poorly Lit Runway
Could you please elaborate on the problem areas at Kozhikode?
The airport at Kozhikode does not have an adequate radar system, which means that the ATC (Air Traffic Control) can’t track or detect the flight when it is preparing to land at the airport. The ATC person is simply going by pilot’s voice report. This adds pressure on the pilot.
Secondly, Karipur Airport has a table-top kind of runway. And it also has inadequate light because of no centreline lighting on the runway. These two factors, table-top runway and inadequate lights makes landing at night very tricky.
It creates visual illusion known as ‘black hole’ effect, which fools pilots into thinking they are higher than they actually are, causing them to fly dangerously low approaches. When I fly to Karipur Airport, I keep saying to myself that whatever I am seeing is not real. Only 50% pilots will be able to do a text book landing at Kozhikode. To top it all the ATC does not inform the pilot about braking action which makes landing even tougher.
‘No Proper Braking Action Information From ATC’
What is braking action?
In India, the ATC does not provide proper braking action report to the pilot. The ATC is supposed to inform the pilot about the exact condition of the runway before landing - Whether the runway is wet or has patches of water, how many millimetre (mm) of static water on the runway, etc. Every mm of water on the runway changes the distance required for landing.
Braking action information helps the pilot to decide whether or not to land, given the condition of the runway. If the pilot feels there is a danger of skidding upon landing, he may divert to another airport.
It is criminal that the ATC does not give complete information about the runway to pilots. During the monsoons we are only told that runway is wet. That is not enough. The pilot should be told whether the braking action is normal or moderate or poor.
Due to rubber deposits (from aircraft tyres) on the runway, the tarmac is even more slippery. But no one bothers to remove these because it causes flight delays. Other Indian airports also face this problem. In the monsoons rubber deposits must be cleaned frequently. There are technologies available all over the world to do this.
Why is the ATC unable to give the braking action report to pilots?
In many airports we do not have the equipment needed to measure braking action. DGCA knows about it but the problem is that DGCA is full of IAS officers who have no technical knowledge about aviation. The babus in DGCA often say that the pilot should divert the flight if they feel landing is unsafe. But how can a pilot do so with insufficient information.
‘Capt Sathe Knew Karipur Airport’s Runway In & Out’
How frequently did Captain Deepak Sathe fly to Kozhikode?
For Captain Sathe, Kozhikode was like home. He operated there day in and day out. He knew every inch of that runway very well. He has seen almost 10-15 monsoons in Kozhikode. He was one of the most experienced pilots you can have to landed at Karipur airport in those weather conditions.
If someone with Captain Sathe’s experience and calibre can undergo this accident, then I am telling you, the rest of us are sunk. Had Captain Sathe been told that the braking action is poor, he would not have attempted landing. He could have diverted to any other airport.
Does a pilot undergo special training to fly to Kozhikode?
We have something called ‘Kozhikode qualification’, so it is not like as soon as you join Air India as a pilot, you can fly to Kozhikode. Instructors provide classroom training, after which pilots are trained in a simulator or artificial cockpit where they ‘experience’ and ‘tackle’ the various conditions they may face at Kozhikode. Only after completing this training is the pilot cleared for that route. Simply because Karipur is a tricky airport.
Why is the DGCA not resolving these issues?
I can’t really say. All I can say is that they are aware of the issues. The DGCA is relying on supernatural pilots who can cater to poor runway conditions and expects pilots to land perfectly even when ATC is not providing us vital landing information. So I dont know whether my brakes will work or not after I land. The strange part is that no one is ready to listen to the pilots and support the pilots. We have safety of the passengers on our minds. So if we make recommendations on flight safety, then it has to be correct.
It is DGCA’s fault that they are not resolving the issues at Karipur Airport. It is like everything is Ram bharose!
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