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Some Unanswered Questions Around The PIA Tragedy

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Anger, anguish and sadness are the reactions being exhibited by the people on the unfortunate PIA plane crash incident that occurred in Karachi on 23 May 2020. The anger against PIA’s performance, the sadness on the losses of precious human lives and the anguish because of helplessness people feel in finding the real reason behind this catastrophe. One of the immediate reactions was to ask the CEO of PIA to tender his resignation as his airline failed to perform as good as it was expected. This is a normal practice in the country: to target a top level official or a minister for any disaster that takes place. No doubt the person leading an institution always has a prime responsibility in running it as well as possible. Yet, an institution is always greater than an individual and it resides on the system. To gauge and fathom the apparent causes of this disaster, we have to dig into each and every step of the event in its technical and behavioural order – behavioral in the sense of how the pilot, co-pilot, and air traffic controller acted and reacted to this incident.

As a latest report claims, the “CCTV footage” depicting the fall of the ill-fated aircraft is fake. The use of this footage for any discussion is no longer valid and appropriate. The most important point of reference that now remains for discussion is the recording of conversation between the pilot and the air traffic controller. The inputs from a survivor of the crash and updates from PIA and CAA do carry some weight as well.

A report in The News of 23 May 2020 says: “From the conversation, it seems the copilot was looking for an access to 25L. It also appears this access was denied by the ATC on the first request, asking the aircraft to turn around.”

On 24 May 2020, a report in the Express Tribune claimed that based on CAA’s runway inspection, the captain of flight PK8303 had made two attempts to land the plane. During the first attempt, it appears the Airbus A320 aircraft’s landing gear was still retracted as it approached the runway. This attempt left friction marks between 4,500 and 7,000 feet – that suggest the plane made some contact with the runway. The CAA investigators suspected that these marks were left by the aircraft’s engines as they scraped the runway.

A contradiction in these two reports can be noticed easily. The first report says that the pilot was denied access to 25L runway and asked the pilot to turn around. Did he turn around? No information is available to determine what course of action was followed by the pilot after he was denied to access 25L runway. The report also says that 25L is for aircraft arriving from the north or south and 25R runway is for commercial aircraft. This explanation is quite confusing but instead of wasting my time on it, I want to ask an important question: “Why did the pilot choose 25L when 25R runway was the one he should have selected from the very beginning, as it is designated for the flights he was operating?” Does it mean he was either unaware of it or he was experiencing some problem in the aircraft that had led him to go for the runway that he found easier and suitable to access? It’s a mystery that can be left to the guesswork of others.

The report of 24 May doesn’t talk of any denial of access to the 25L runway and claims that during the first attempt (denied as per previous report) it appears the aircraft’s landing gear was retracted as it approached the runway. It triggers a question: “Did the pilot go around after the denial to access 25L runway?” One can assume that he should have, and if it is true then this was his second attempt to land. The observations of the CAA investigators don’t make any mention of 25L or 25R runway. If the friction marks are found on 25L runway then one can assume that the pilot must have received approval from the tower to continue the landing course to 25L runway instead of going around. What convinced the control tower for this change needs an inquiry.

However, the most puzzling part of this investigation is that the aircraft was heading towards the runway without having its landing gear down and what made things worse was the failure of the air traffic controller to notice this error and bring this anomaly to the knowledge of the pilot.

It also raises the question as to why the pilot and co-pilot decided to go ahead for a landing procedure without deploying the landing gear. No sane person can believe that it was an intentional mistake on their part. They must have experienced some kind of malfunctioning of the landing gears when they had tried to extend them. It is still hard to believe that all three landing gears would have failed to extend. Even if all of them had failed, the screen for the landing gear in the cockpit would have highlighted them in red. The display in the cockpit may also develop a fault but surely it could not be for all landing gears. In addition, a chiming noise also begins sounding to alert the pilot for a procedure that he is supposed to complete before proceeding for the landing phase. Did they ignore all these alarms? Unbelievable!

Moreover, even if they had an unsolvable problem with the landing gears, they were supposed to inform the air traffic controller about this problem and ask permission for a belly landing that requires necessary arrangements at the airport to take care of any disaster that may occur as a result of such a risky procedure. No such action was taken by them, based on the information so far appearing in the press.

As the pilot had opted for a belly-landing procedure without informing the air traffic controller, it could have resulted in getting him sacked and reprimanded for not following the required SOP in such a situation – had he survived carrying out a belly landing. Though it may be less disastrous than what happened later, the last-minute realization of a mistake and its repercussions must have forced the pilot to pull up the aircraft and go for another round and make a second landing attempt in a proper way.

Unfortunately, neither did the pilot inform the tower about the landing gear problem, nor did the air traffic controller notice non-compliance of an important landing procedure.

Yet, a mystery remains to be resolved. The final conversation of the pilot with air traffic control, as appeared in the press, needs to be quoted here:

We are proceeding direct, sir — we have lost engine,” a pilot can be heard saying.

Confirm your attempt on belly,” the air traffic controller said, offering a runway.

Why did the air traffic controller ask for a belly landing when there was no communication between the pilot and the air traffic controller in the past on this subject? Suppose, the pilot might have answered in positive to his question, could the ATC be able to make necessary arrangements for such an operation within as short a period as it was left for the aircraft to touch down?

The role of the pilot, co-pilot and the air traffic controller will have to be looked at more closely.

Last, but not least important, is the way the pilot and co-pilot had maintained their cool and composure during this whole operation. It is really commendable. At no point in time did they express any frustration or panic in handling the situation.

Even the announcement of “May Day, May Day” showed no sign of fear in the voice. It is unfortunate that such people had to face such an end to their lives that left behind such a mystery.

I hope the investigation of this incident can help to unravel this tragic mystery.

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