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Pilot error focus of India collision investigation

November 14, 1996
Web posted at: 8:25 a.m. EST (1325 GMT)

wreckage

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on possible pilot error on Thursday as India defended itself against charges that its flight safety equipment was outdated.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.

Deve Gowda

"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 Arabia

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.

body bags

"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.

Kyrgyzstan

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.

Black boxes

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 350 people.

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 flames.

"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. movie icon (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 Saudi 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 Kazakhstan.

Speculation on cause

crash crater

The charred debris smoldered overnight and throughout Wednesday morning as investigators picked through the wreckage and aviation experts speculated about the cause of the crash.

"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 percent."



New Delhi Bureau Chief Anita Pratap
explains possible causes of the crash

icon (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 Union.

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

smoke from crash

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 state-of-the-art 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.

crash site

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 radar."

Top aviation officials had no comment on the Indian Airlines official's statements.

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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