Rediff Logo News The Rediff Music Shop Find/Feedback/Site Index
March 8, 1999


IAF crash highlights dangers at Delhi airport

E-Mail this report to a friend

Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

That Delhi airport is dangerous for aircraft has been proved yet again, this time by the crash of an Indian Air Force Antonov 32 transport plane as it was about to land, killing 23 people.

Two reasons are being cited for the crash. The first, according to eyewitnesses and initial reports, is that as the plane was coming in to land, it hit a water tank under construction in a settlement just outside the airport and crashed.

The second is that Delhi lacks sophisticated equipment to guide aircraft when visibility is near zero.

The crash occurred when fog suddenly descended on the airport and the aircraft came down too low too early.

Air Marshal (retired) Denzil Keeler, a hero of the 1971 war and who was with the IAF's transport wing till recently, lambasted the Delhi airport authorities for their callousness.

"Ten of my boys have died," he said angrily. "How many more must go before these guys put in place basic rules that all airports follow?"

The rules refer to not allowing human settlements in and around airports. The IAF has repeatedly pointed out that the primary reason for the increased number of bird hits is the growth of human settlements near all major airports in India. The settlements, often cramped and dirty, generate a lot of garbage, which attracts birds, including big ones like hawks and kites.

Moreover, once the settlers have settled down, as they have outside Delhi airport, they start building bigger structures. The reservoir is believed to have been one such.

But the Delhi Development Authority, which is building a large township near the airport and whose workers live in the settlement, denied this. "The reservoir was an underground tank, it did not rise high above the ground," a DDA official said.

Airports Authority of India member (operations) Rabi Lal insisted that the settlement and tank were well beyond the range of normal flying aircraft. "All settlements are two to three kilometres beyond the runway, and hence quite safe for any aircraft flying at normal height," he said.

He added that the reservoir was below the landing approach slope of aircraft. The slope is the descending, or ascending, flight path of an aircraft coming in to land or taking off. "All constructions come well below the height of the slope as per international standards," Lal said.

Other reports say the aircraft first hit high-tension wires and then the reservoir, before bursting into flames.

"Every airport keeps a margin for safety by ensuring that the ground near the runway is clear in case a pilot brings his plane down too early or there is an error. By allowing construction and human settlements, you are destroying that margin," said Air Marshal Keeler. "Why then even bother with such margins and safety ideas?"

In May 1993, an Indian Airlines aircraft failed to climb during takeoff from Aurangabad airport in Maharashtra and its wheels hit a truck parked on the highway beyond the runway. All passengers on board were killed. A demand was then made to ensure a wide enough distance from the end of the runway for such emergencies.

But Rabi Lal asked how much the gap should be? "In Bangalore, there is a golf course beyond the runway," he said. "A few years ago, the DDA wanted to follow suit, thinking it would be a safe venture. But they changed their mind after an Airbus 320 crashed near the course."

He reiterated that all construction near Delhi airport conform to international norms. "In the AAI, we had no objection to the construction of the reservoir because it was sufficiently low," he said. "Initial reports say the pilot was flying below the stipulated height."

But Air Marshal Keeler insisted the distance is not enough. For years on end, he said, the IAF and civil aviation have been warning the government of the dangers of allowing such settlements near airports. The IAF even conducted studies that showed a clear correlation between growing settlements near airports and rising crashes.

One such report was prepared by Dr A P J Abdul Kalam and prescribed certain practices to lessen IAF crashes.

An IAF officer said while the report has not been made public, it is being implemented by the air force.

Rabi Lal washed the AAI's hands of the question. "The responsibility for all construction beyond the airport is that of the civic officials of the city concerned. In Delhi, it is the DDA that is responsible."

The weather is also to be blamed for the IAF crash. Just before the AN-32 was due to land, fog descended on the airport and visibility went down drastically.

Airport officials have tactfully stated that visibility had gone down to below 500 metres when the crash occurred. As Air Marshal Keeler pointed out, "it could also mean the visibility had dropped to zero".

"I live near the airport and at that time, the visibility had indeed gone down to zero. This is also proved by the fact that the pilot could not see the pylons or the water reservoir."

Yet, if sudden fog can cause a crash, it is also because Delhi airport does not have the equipment necessary to avert such disasters. Purchase of an advanced Instrument Landing System has been hanging fire for many years now.

"Why can't the government just buy the ILS?" asks Air Marshal Keeler. "Is it a question of money? The government has enough money to test nuclear bombs, but it cannot buy an ILS that would have saved the lives of so many brilliant officers of the ranks of squadron leader and wing commander!"

The AN-32 was due to land on runway #10, which has a minima of 1200 metres (that is, the runway is not to be used if visibility is below 1200m). Airport officials claim to have informed the pilot about the RVR (runway visibility range), and he in turn had said he was certified to clear a 1200 RVR. "These things are based on trust. There is no way we can check it then and there," said a source, adding that the board of inquiry set up will clarify the facts.

But the fact remains that Delhi airport does not have a good record. Barely two and a half years ago, on November 13, 1996, within minutes of takeoff, a Saudia Boeing 747 collided with a Kazakh Air Tupolev 154 coming in to land, killing 350 people.

Last winter, flights in and out of Delhi were badly disrupted for several days by heavy fog. Delhi airport uses only a category 1 ILS, which is incapable of dealing with heavy fog. The airport has installed a category 2 ILS, but cannot use it because a technical fault has not been repaired for three years!

Major airports across the world use category 3 ILS, which enables pilots to land even when visibility is zero.

Pointing to the Saudia-Kazakh mid-air collision and the inability to install top-class equipment as perfect examples of the government's indifference, Air Marshal Keeler said, "The collision occurred because both landing and takeoff are from the same corridor. Why did they not separate the two, as is done all over the world? And what have the airport authorities done after that?"

Tell us what you think of this report