Pilot error focus of India collision investigation
November 14, 1996
Web posted at: 8:25 a.m. EST (1325 GMT)
NEW DELHI (CNN) - Speculation on the cause of the
mid-air disaster which killed 349 people focused on possible
pilot error on Thursday as India defended itself against charges
that its flight safety equipment was outdated.
India launched an official inquiry, headed by a high court
judge, into Tuesday's disaster in which two planes collided near
New Delhi. "We will not spare any culprit" if any individual
was to blame, Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda said.
But Deve Gowda, who visited the macabre crash site on Wednesday, cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
"Until the report is available, it cannot be said whether
it was failure of pilots or the air traffic control," he told
reporters at the crash site at Charkhi Dadri, 80 km (50 miles)
west of New Delhi.
The Asian Age newspaper said on Thursday the onus of guilt
had shifted "to either one or both of the pilots." The Times
of India said preliminary indications showed the mishap was
"probably due to the Kazakh pilot's error."
A Saudi Arabia Airlines jumbo jet carrying 312 people took
off from New Delhi Tuesday evening. Seven minutes later it collided with a
KazAir Ilyushin IL-76 freighter that was preparing to land.
Authorities said the windscreen of the Kazakh freighter was
largely intact after falling some 14,000 feet (4,270 metres) to
the ground, indicating it was not a head-on crash.
Saudi Arabian officials were completing arrangements on Thursday to fly home the bodies of 13 Saudis killed over India in the world's worst mid-air collision in which 349 people died.
"We are in touch with our people in India to finalise the
arrangements. We are hoping the bodies might be flown back to
Jeddah on Thursday or Friday," one official at the Saudi
Arabian Airlines Corporation headquarters in Jeddah said.
"Most of the Saudi bodies have been identified," another official said, but did not say how many.
Saudi newspapers reported on Thursday that 11 Saudi bodies
had been identified. The Saudi victims are one passenger and 12
crew members, including five anti-terrorism security men.
The officials said they received on Thursday the final list
of passengers and crew on the Boeing 747 when it and an incoming
Kazakh plane collided minutes after the Saudi plane took off
from New Delhi on Tuesday.
Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev sent
a message of condolence on Thursday to the families of 13
traders from the central Asian state who died aboard the Kazakh
cargo plane involved in Tuesday's mid-air collision over India.
A foreign ministry official in the capital Bishkek told
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency relatives stood little chance of
compensation under international rules because Kyrgyzstan was
too poor to subscribe to international airline conventions.
Investigators Wednesday pulled
the last of four so-called "black boxes" -- the flight data
recorders and cockpit voice recorders -- from the wreckage of
an in-flight collision over northern India that killed some
Officials hope information on the recorders will help explain
why a Saudi Arabia Airlines Boeing 747 and
a Kazakhstan National Airways (KazAir) Ilyushin IL-76 cargo
plane collided Tuesday evening and plunged to the ground in
"They look damaged, but we expect the insides to be safe and
secure," said Indian Director of Air Safety V.K. Chandna.
Chandna said investigators also had taken recordings made in
the control tower of New Delhi's Indira Ghandi airport just
before the crash.
The crash, the third deadliest in aviation history, occurred
seven minutes after the Saudi jet took off. It
scattered debris over a 6-mile area. (112K/28 sec. QuickTime movie)
Searchers have recovered more than 250 bodies, many mutilated
and charred, from two crash sites some 10 km (6 miles)
apart on the north Indian plain west of New Delhi. Relatives
came to makeshift morgues to try to identify family members.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi said two U.S. women
were among the passengers aboard the Saudi jumbo jet, and
British officials confirmed that one British woman was on
board. More than 300 people, mostly Indians traveling to
Arabia for jobs or to Islamic holy sites, were on the
jet, along with some Nepalis and Pakistanis.
Rajiv Bhaskar, an official with KazAir, said the
passengers aboard the chartered cargo plane included
businessmen traveling from Kazakhstan to New Delhi to
purchase wool goods -- cheap in India -- for sale in
Speculation on cause
The charred debris smoldered overnight and throughout
Wednesday morning as investigators picked through the
wreckage and aviation experts speculated about the cause of
"Overall, internationally speaking, 75 percent of the cause
of air accidents is human error," said S.S. Sidhu, a former
secretary general of the International Civil Aviation
Organization. "Mechanical or systems failures are only 25
New Delhi Bureau Chief Anita Pratap
explains possible causes of the crash
(288K/23 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Sidhu said it was still too early for a definitive
determination about the cause, but he said the
Russian-speaking pilot of the Kazakhstan plane could have
faced a language barrier. Many pilots from former Soviet
republics, he said, had previously flown only in the Soviet
KazAir's Bhaskar disputed the idea.
"If that was the case we would have accidents every other
day," he said. "I believe the cause of the collision was
either pilot error or control tower error."
Brij Bharadwaj, an independent aviation expert, suggested
that the KazAir pilot may have miscalculated his altitude
instructions from the control tower. Russian-built aircraft
use metric measurements, while Western planes use feet.
Just before two planes collided, air traffic controllers told
the approaching Saudi jet to climb to 14,000 feet (4,308
meters) and instructed the Kazakh plane to descend to 15,000
feet (4,615 meters), leaving little margin for error.
"At the time when they were given the instructions, it is
crucial at what height they were flying," Bharadwaj said.
Pilots say equipment outdated
India's commercial pilots union said Wednesday the
government had dragged its feet on flight safety
improvements, even after three near in-flight collisions over
a six-month period in 1994 and 1995.
The Indian Commercial Pilots' Association released a
letter dated May 1995, outlining the three incidents and
citing outdated equipment as a primary culprit.
The pilots' association had recommended installation of
radar systems, such as transponders, VHF communications
equipment and CAT II equipment, to aid landings. But the
government had not done so, the group said.
Indian Civil Aviation Minister C.M. Ibrahim denied that
India's air traffic control systems and its equipment were
outdated, and added that further modernization of India's
airports was planned.
But a senior flight safety official at state-owned Indian
Airlines said the government had been slow in installing some
equipment, including a transponder, which allows air
traffic controllers to monitor an aircraft's speed and
altitude. He said a transponder been installed at the Delhi
airport but was not operational.
"It would have been better to have a transponder," said the
official, who asked not to be identified. "If two aircraft
are closing in on each other, it can't be seen on traditional
Top aviation officials had no comment on the Indian Airlines
India has set up the following information numbers for those who believe
family members may have been aboard one of the two planes: 91-11-548-1219 and 91-11-548-4052.
New Delhi Bureau Chief Anita Pratap, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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