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Flights on collision course halted in the nick of time

Their paths crossing,two passenger aircraft prepared to take off simultaneously from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport on Sunday morning,before the danger was spotted and the flights aborted.

Written by Shashank Shekhar | Mumbai |
June 1, 2009 1:43:12 am

Their paths crossing,two passenger aircraft prepared to take off simultaneously from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport on Sunday morning,before the danger was spotted and the flights aborted.

Air India AI 348 was taxiing along the airport’s main runway (09/27) while Jet Airways flight 9W 615 had started its motors on the secondary runway (14/32). The Jet flight was bound for Kolkata with 119 passengers on board while the AI aircraft,an Airbus 310,was bound for Shanghai via Delhi with 120 passengers.

The Jet flight had received takeoff clearance but ATC officials insisted that they issued no such clearance to the Air India flight. Air India officials,on the other hand,say that the pilot did get clearance.

A crash was prevented when an ATC controller saw the aircraft on the same path and shouted out at the Air India pilot,instructing him to abort takeoff. This happened 10 seconds after takeoff clearance had been given to the Jet flight. The pilot overheard the shouted instruction to the AI flight and halted his flight,too.

Aviation experts say the scare puts a question mark on the safety assessment of the airport. It came,ironically,just a day after the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had okayed round-the-clock use of the cross-runways,so far used for only six hours a day.

Sources wondered if takeoff clearance was given at the same time to both aircraft. If not,one of the pilots could have misunderstood the ATC’s instructions,they felt.

ATC officials,on condition of anonymity,said they did not issue takeoff instructions to the Air India flight and blamed the near-collision on a human error by the pilot. A top airport official who heard the ATC transcripts,which were replayed for officials of the DGCA,said the tapes clearly show that takeoff instructions were only given to the Jet pilot. The Indian Express accessed the conversation between the ATC controller and the pilots (see box).

At the time the two aircraft were taxiing on the runway,another one,Saudi Arabia flight 752,was still on the other end of the runway from where flight 348 would have taken off. It was asked to exit after the AI flight had started preparing to takeoff.

Officials from Air India insist that the pilot was given takeoff instructions from the ATC controller. “The usual procedure is that once takeoff instructions are given by a controller,the pilot repeats the instruction as an acknowledgement. In this case the pilot said he had clearly acknowledged the controller and then began increasing his flight speed,” said an AI pilot who had spoken to the captain of AI 348.

An AI pilot said the “takeoff reject”,in any case,had been safe. “The aircraft was at 70 knots,below the specified safe speed of about 125 knots/hour.”

A member from the Indian Pilots Guild said the pilots of both flights would meet DGCA officials tomorrow.

The Jet flight left at 11.19 am and the AI flight at 1.48 pm.

7:55 am: ATC clears Saudi flight landing on runway 09/27
7:57 am: ATC tells Jet flight to line up on runway 14/32
7:57 am: ATC tells Saudi flight to vacate runway via taxiway
7.57 am: Takeoff clearance to Jet flight
7:58 am: AI flight told to hold position
7:58 am: AI pilot says message received,aborts takeoff,so does Jet
Runway 09/27
Air India flight 348 (bound for Shanghai vis New Delhi) 120 passengers

On verge of takeoff from Kurla end,aparently without clearance

Runway 14/32
Jet Airways flight 9W615 (bound for Kolkata) 119 passengers

Takeoff clearnce received,starts rolling forward from Santacruz end

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