Air India Express plane crash: Friday’s plane crash at Kozhikode in Kerala involving an Air India Express flight with 190 people on board is the first major accident since the 2010 crash at Mangaluru airport. The Air India Express-operated Boeing 737-800 aircraft overshot Kozhikode airport’s runway — a tabletop runway like Mangaluru’s — and fell 35 feet down a slope, resulting in the aircraft splitting into two. Kozhikode’s runway is surrounded by deep gorges on both sides. Tabletop runways are generally constructed by chopping off the top of a hill, and are often thought of as tricky for landings because of the lack of any margin for overshooting the runway.
According to senior government officials, the Air India Express aircraft at Kozhikode did not catch fire upon crashing, thereby minimising casualties. An official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said the aircraft seemed to have touched down at higher than usual speed, giving pilots less time to bring it to a halt at a runway that is shorter than usual. (Follow live updates on the accident)
In addition to the airports at Kozhikode and Mangaluru, the Lengpui airport in Mizoram, Pakyong airport in Sikkim, and Simla and Kullu in Himachal Pradesh are built on tabletops. Other tabletop airports outside India include Paro in Bhutan and Kathmandu in Nepal.
In 2010, an Air India Express plane overshot the runway at Mangaluru airport in Karnataka and crashed into a valley before bursting into flames, killing 158 people. Last year, another Air India Express flight from Dubai veered off the runway at Mangaluru and halted in soft ground, causing a scare for 181 passengers on board.
Quixplained | What are tabletop runways?
According to pilots, landing on tabletop runways requires precision approach with little to no room for errors. In fact, soon after the Mangaluru incident in 2010, the DGCA had banned wide-bodied aircraft from landing at Kozhikode airport, which require longer distances to slow down because of their higher payloads.
At 2,860 meters, Kozhikode’s runway is only about 400 meters longer than Mangaluru but the crash could put a spotlight on other airports that see regular narrow-bodied aircraft operations with comparatively shorter runways like Patna, which is 2,072 meters in length. Delhi’s Runway 29/11 is the longest in the country at 4,430 metres.
Poor weather at Kozhikode airport at the time the Air India Express plane was attempting to land could have worsened the situation. A runway that is subjected to a downpour causes a layer of water to form over the surface that reduces the friction and causes the plane to skid if the brakes are applied. Without full brakes at the crew’s disposal, stopping the aircraft in time becomes even more difficult for the pilots.
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