Thursday, October 22, 2020
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Scare in the Air – Air India flies aircraft with fractured fuselage

In what comes as a scary as well as a mind-boggling incident, an Air India Express Boeing 737 flying from Trichy to Dubai hit a wall while taking off from Trichy, flew with a ruptured underbelly till Mumbai and lands in Mumbai with 130 passengers and 6 crews on board.

At 01:18 hours on 12th Oct, AI Express flight IX-611, a Boeing 737-800, AI’s Trichy-Dubai service was on Thiruvananthapuram’s Runway 27 ready for taking off. After clearance from ATC, the flight started the takeoff roll but took off late. In the event, the underbelly and the landing gears collided with the localizer antennas (Installed around 500 feet from the RWY) as well as the airport perimeter wall. The impact ripped the underbelly at several places, the nose landing gear took a hit and a green wire mesh got entangled, the fuselage near wings have fracture signs and one of the VHF antennae got destroyed.

Entangled green wire mesh

Despite this, the pilots kept climbing showing no signs of knowing that their aircraft was involved in an incident because “All systems in the aircraft were normal”.

From the incident reported, it seems ground at Trichy took sometime before they knew what had just happened. They neither informed the aircraft nor any adjoining ATC about the incident until 01:48 hours which is a good 30 minutes into the flight. At 01:48 hours, Bengaluru ATC was informed that the aircraft had hit the localiser antennas as well as the perimeter wall. The extent of damage was still not known. The aircraft, which was now in Bengaluru ATC limits was conveyed the message as soon as it was received but the pilots decided to continue as systems and parameters from flight computers were “normal”.

At 02:30 hours, as the aircraft entered Mumbai ATC, they too were informed by Trichy about the incident. Mumbai ATC asked the pilots for an emergency landing at CSIA, Mumbai but to no avail. The aircraft continued on its flight path. At this point, Mumbai ATC contacted the AI flight operations who ordered the pilots for an emergency landing at CSIA, Mumbai. At 03:30 hours, after it had already left Indian airspace, the aircraft was diverted and began flying back to Mumbai.

Full emergency was declared as CSIA, Mumbai with emergency vehicles on standby. At 05:00 hours IST, the plane safely landed in Mumbai runway 09 with no eventuality.

This whole incident raises several questions on air safety both vis-a-vis pilots and ground. Flightradar data shows the aircraft was at 0 feet at the fag end of the runway.

The pilots calculate V1 and Vr (Rotate) before each take off depending on weather, runway conditions and take off weight. V1 is the speed beyond which the takeoff should no longer be aborted. Vr is the speed at which the pilot must apply flight inputs for the aircraft nose to pitch up, in simpler words, the aircraft takes off at Vr. Was there a miscalculation by the pilots on V1 and Vr calculation? Why the aircraft continued for so long on the runway before taking off?

Another flightradar extract shows, the aircraft was allowed to climb to cruising altitude.

Remember that the aircraft cabins are pressurised. As you climb, the atmospheric pressure surrounding the aircraft decreases as air thins. Hence the pressure difference rises as the aircraft climbs. At 36,000 feet, a fractured fuselage could mean the pressure difference may lead to decompression causing damage to the airframe. This could lead to catastrophic consequences. The question remains, why did the ground staff which was aware of the situation, allow the aircraft to go to such an altitude. Maybe, they were not aware of the extent of damage?

The question also arises on the crew on how did they not know of the impact because there must have been a thud in the cabin at impact. The pictures clearly show that one of the VHFantennaea was damaged anda report says it fell off later.

Picture showing damage to one of the VHF antenna

There was damage to the horizontal stabiliser as well.

However, flightradar data shows that the climb rate was normal indicating pilots may not have known. Also, the localizer antennas were damaged and nonfunctional. Ground really took a good 40 minutes to recognise that the aircraft was hit before take off?

Damage to the horizontal stabilizer

The pilots since have been de-rostered and a detailed investigation is underway. However, some crucial questions on air safety remain. The biggest of them all, why did the pilots continue despite multiple ATC towers informing them of the collision? Why did it take the AI flight operations to make the pilots agree to an emergency landing in Mumbai?

Hope these questions are answered in the investigation and processes are put in place to make our skies safer.

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