Former Kerala bureaucrat E K Bharat Bhushan, who spearheaded and fast-tracked the completion of the Kozhikode airport back in 1988, and later in 2012, helming the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) threatened to shut down the flight operations at the same airport over safety concerns, told indianexpress.com that while multiple factors could have led to the mishap, this should be enough to convince people about the need to extend the runway here. Bhushan, who retired as Kerala Chief Secretary in 2015, was speaking to indianexpress.com over telephone from Thrissur. Edited excerpts:
The Air India Boeing-737 plane that overshot the runway, falling down a hillside at Kozhikode airport yesterday brings back the memories of the 2010 airplane crash at Mangalore airport. You took charge as DG, DGCA soon after that accident; in your views what are the similarities.
Bharat Bhushan: Both Karipur and Mangalore are tabletop airports. In both cases, the pilot appears to have landed well past the touchdown point, and the plane ran out of the runway both times. The only difference, fortunately, is that this one did not catch fire. In Mangalore, you know, we lost 158 souls. Read In Malayalam
There has been a demand for extension of the runway…..
Bharat Bhushan: It has been a long-pending demand from the Airport Authority of India (AAI) to extend this runway. Unfortunately, it has not seen the light of day. When I was DG, I had tried my part. There is a lot of local opposition to the acquisition of land. I hope now everyone is convinced that there is no other way. Not that it would have prevented the accident, but suppose the pilot had a few thousand feet of more runway space, he would not have had to brake abruptly. What we know is that the landing was so hard, it broke the plane into pieces.
Was it a lack of a political will or the political interference that prevented the acquisition of land for extending the runway?
Bharat Bhushan: I do not know. I can’t be more specific than that. The AAI has been pushing for more land. I personally went there because I knew the place. I was the district collector when the airport came into being. Later on, when I was DG I pushed myself to try and get this additional space, especially in the wake of the Mangalore accident. But there was, shall we say, lack of popular positive response.
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But you were the district collector of Malappuram when the airport came into being in 1988.
Bharat Bhushan: In 1987, I was sent there on a specific mission to complete the airport. Because since 1977, it has been going on. The CM asked me to go and get it done and it was a mission mode approach that we took. There were small parcels of land, I cannot recall much, which we managed to acquire and completed the process. The requirement of AAI was only that much. Later on, some part of it was extended, too. But when you want large aircraft to land, you do need more space.
Is Karipur airport one of the most challenging runways in the country, being a tabletop airport?
Bharat Bhushan: It is one of the challenging runways. Some years ago, in a small aircraft, I did a landing in Mangalore. It was frightening. This (Karipur) is a similar airport. But all airports are challenging, particularly when it rains. I don’t think there was any crosswind which could have taken the plane away. The pilot was an expert and has landed here before. So everything including the pilot’s physical and mental condition will come under investigation. After all, the Mangalore accident was proven to be the pilot’s error.
What about the upkeep and maintenance of the airport. You have in the past threatened to shut down the Karipur airport.
Bharat Bhushan: About upkeep, there cannot be two opinions. It is the job of the regulator and the airport operator, which is the AAI. Yes, there have been instances where we threatened them with a complete stoppage of flights. I am from Malabar and the issue was close to my heart. At that time, the survey team from AAI had gone (to identify required land) and they were manhandled. We wanted to acquire more land.
Then what happened?
Bharat Bhushan: But we reached a compromise. We decided to have a runway end safety area (RESA) so that there is some added space. RESA is an area at the end of the runway where the plane can sink in if it shoots beyond the runway. It was a compromise. Unfortunately, in yesterday’s accident, the speed of the aircraft was such that it went past the RESA, smashing the perimeter wall.
The airport is not suited for landing large aircrafts?
Bharat Bhushan: At that time we had said only narrow-body aircraft should be allowed to land here. Yesterday’s was a narrow-body aircraft. But, runway upkeep is very important, and rubber particles should be removed from time to time. The re-carpeting here, I believe, was done very recently. But let us not jump the gun. There are enough professionals in the country who can bring out the details, and I am sure they will do it.
What can we expect out of the DGCA inquiry?
Bharat Bhushan: The inquiry would look into just about everything, including the mental balance of the pilots. If they had enough sleep (before the flight), if they were on any medications, etc. There is a comprehensive architecture in DGCA to conduct an inquiry. The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB) is on the job. They will have access to everything including the black box, cockpit voice recorder, they will be examining the runway for any abnormalities, etc. We will have to wait for the inquiry report.
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