#CalicutAirportCrash, The design of the airport – How safe it was?

Soon after the Mangalore Airport crash in 2010, the DGCA banned wide-bodied aircraft from landing at Kozhikode Airport, as it requires longer airstrips to reduce its speed because of their higher payloads.

August 07, 2020 – Perhaps it would have been a regular business amid the uncertainties posed by the deadly COVID-19, if the tragic Kozhikode Plane Crash would not have happened.


A Calicut-bound Air India Boeing 737 aircraft from Dubai with 190 onboard skidded off the runway in Kerala's Kozhikode International Airport and broke into pieces, shortly after the landing. At least 18 casualties have been reported thus far, including the two pilots. The pilot-in-command, Captain Deepak Sathe and his co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar were among those who died. Several passengers are in critical conditions and are being attended by the best medical experts in the nation. Preliminary reports suggest that the pilots before making the touchdown, made two attempts to land on Runway 10 and the aircraft circled the airport several times before attempting to land. (Source)


In an official statement, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said that the airbus, after landing, "continued running to the end of the runway and fell down in the valley and broke down in two pieces".


What caused the Air India Express-operated Boeing 737-800 to crash?


Evidently, the authorities made preliminary statements, but there are still a million questions that demands answer, for the starters, “What caused the Air India Express-operated Boeing 737-800 aircraft overshot Kozhikode airport’s runway?” Was it the poor condition of the airstrip? Was it the poor signal system of the airport? Was the airport safely designed? Whether there was any technical fault in the aircraft? Well the questions are many, and the authorities, after conducting a proper investigation, may find themselves in a better position to answer each one of them. No doubt that the Kozhikode crash is the first major accident in India since the 2010 crash at Mangaluru airport, but the question is, could this have been averted?


The design of the airport – How safe it was?


The Kozhikode Airport is a tabletop airport, with its runway located on the top of hills/ terrain with drops nearby. A table top runway is a runway developed over a hill, by chopping off its top and levelling the surface thereafter. In most of the cases, there’s a complete lack of any margin for overshooting the runway.


The Google Maps satellite view of the Kozhikode Airport shows that the runway is raised up over its surroundings, leaving a very little margin of error in case of an overrun. Tabletop runways are anyways known for being the most difficult to land an aircraft even for the best of the commercial pilots. With bad weather conditions, slippery and wet airstrips the difficulty level increases exponentially, with an almost negligible margin of error.


The length of the Kozhikode table top runway is 2,860 meters. Moments after the Air India Boeing 737 aircraft from Dubai with 190 onboard made the touchdown, it skidded off the runway in Kerala's Kozhikode International Airport, fell 35 feet down a slope and broke into pieces.


According to an aviation safety report submitted to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India in 2011, the runway 10 at Kerala's Kozhikode International airport where the Air India aircraft overshot the runway, was unsafe for flight operations due to inadequate safety area along the runway and at the end of the runway to safeguard against planes skidding off.


A report published in the Hindu, quoted the portion of a letter written to the then Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Naseem Zaidi by Mr. Mohan Ranganathan, who prepared the part of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee, which says, “there has been no effort on the part of AAI to rectify the safety infringements ... The runway strip is just half the minimum widths laid down. This fact was known to the DGCA... Have they considered the danger involved? Has the DGCA or airlines laid down any operational restrictions or special procedures”.


The report also quoted Mr. Ranganathan, who said, “there is only a 90 metre safety area at the end of the runway, which should be at least 200 metres. Similarly, on both sides of the runway there is only 75 metre of safety area, when that should be at least 150 metres”.


In his June 17, 2011 letter addressed to the chairman of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Committee (CASAC), with copies sent to the civil aviation secretary and director-general of civil aviation, Mr. Ranganathan said, “Runway 10 approach should not be permitted in view of the lack of 'runway end safety area (RESA) and the terrain beyond the end of the runway. RESA of 240m should be immediately introduced and runway length has to be reduced to make operations safe.” The Times Now reported.


How many tabletop airports in India?


There are three operational tabletop airports in India from where scheduled commercial flights operate.


These are Mangalore International Airport in Karnataka, Kozhikode International Airport in Kerala and Lengpui Airport in Mizoram. According to pilots flying commercial flights, landing an aircraft on tabletop runways requires an expert precision approach with little to no room for errors.

Written by: Mr. Abhishek Choudhary, Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Gold medalist in B.Sc. LL.B (Hons.) & Founder, Legis Orbis


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any person or official associated with Legis Orbis. Examples of analysis performed within this article are only examples. They should not be utilized in real-world analytic products as they are based only on very limited and dated open source information. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any person or official associated with Legis Orbis.

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