By Jacob K Philip
An incident that was hardly noticed by the national media, though it was one of the gravest of the safety incidents ever occurred at any of the Indian airports, is bound to land Jet Airways, the operator airline, in deep trouble in the coming days.
The DGCA is viewing the incident very seriously and by all indications, both airline and the pilot who was hailed by the local newspapers and the social media as a hero who miraculously saved the lives of 142 odd passengers and eight crew, are to face the music.
It was at Kochi airport, Kerala, a southern state of India, that the chain of events that culminated in the near-disaster, started on the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 18, 2015.
When Jet Airways flight 9W 555, a Boeing 737-800, arrived from Doha, the Capital of Qatar, over Kochi at 5.45 in the morning, there were not enough visibility for the aircraft to land because of the haze that followed a heavy rain during the previous night. After holding over Kochi for a almost half an hour, the pilot decided to divert to Trivandrum. When it reached Trivandrum, visibility at Trivandrum also was less than what required for a visual landing. (ILS was not available because of a calibration issue).
The captain of the aircraft informed the Air Traffic Control (ATC) that the fuel levels were running low and he should be permitted to attempt landings even though the visibility was insufficient. The pilot tried to land from the ’14’ end of the runway thrice. By the time fuel level dropped to alarming levels according to the pilot and he made a final attempt at the other end of the runway, almost blindly. In between, he made a May Day call also.
A full emergency was declared (even before the May Day call) at the airport and all the steps were taken as per the SOP. ( Getting ambulances ready, informing city fire services also and the alerting the hospitals in the pre-made panel etc.).
The pilot however could manage to land the aircraft. The landing turned out to be without any hitch.
The whole incident would never have attracted not much of an attention, being one of the numerous diversion incidents during the inclement weather in Kerala airports, but for the grave issue of shortage of fuel involved and for the desperate frantic way the pilot behaved , making even a May Day call.
And it indeed was one of the most serious safety occurrences that could happen at any airport. And the government and the regulation authorities should be taking immediate actions, treating the incident at par with an actual air crash.
Here is why:
The core of the incident is a passenger aircraft using up almost all the fuel in-flight. There could be only three reasons for such a rarest of rare occurrence:
- The fuel policy of the airline that is not in line with international safety standards
- Erroneous implementation of the fuel policy (If the policy was perfect)
- Wrong judgement and short-sighted en-route planning and erroneous/belated decision making of the pilot.
There are only remote chances for 1 to be true, because the SOPs simply will always be correct, everywhere, for all organizations.
So we can pass on to 2:
Though the fuel planning method vary across airlines, the fuel requirement for Boeing 737-800 aircraft is generally calculated as the sum of the following:
- Fuel to reach the destination
- Fuel to reach an alternate airport from the destination
- Fuel to fly for 45 minutes at cruising altitude from the alternate airport
- Fuel for planned hold
- Fuel to taxi
- 5% contingency.
So for B737-800s that fly from Doha to Kochi covering 1677 nm ( 3106 km), each of these items will work out like this:
- Fuel to reach the destination (kochi) = 10167 kgm (Allowing an allownace for a headwind of 50kts).
- Fuel to reach Trivandrum, the alternate airport, 191 km(103nm) away from kochi – 1497 kgm
- Fuel to fly for 45 minutes at cruising altitude from Trivandrum, the alternate airport: 2701 kgm
- Fuel for holding for 30 minutes: 1800 kgm
- Taxi fuel: 200kgm
The total of 1 to 5 is 16365 kgm
So 5% for contingency is 818.25 kgm
Therefore, the all-up total fuel required is 17183 kgm or 21478 litres
And the total fuel capacity of the aircraft is 20894 kgm (26118 litres).
Even if the aircraft had only 17183 kgm and not the maximum capacity of 20894 kgm, the 9W555 would have had 7016 kgm of fuel left when it reached Kochi.
Imagine it had spent an entire 30 minutes of holding time at Kochi. So the remaining fuel when it left for Trivandrum was 5216 kgm.
On reaching Trivandrum the fuel level would have become 5216-1497 kgm = 3719 kgm.
And how much time it spent at Trivandrum to do the three missed approaches and go-arounds? On 7.03 am, it had touched down. It reached Kochi by 5.50 AM. If it had spent 30 minutes at Kochi and it left it must have left Kochi by 6.20 AM. So, within 43 minutes, it reached Trivandrum, missed three approaches and did the final landing. Deducting the time taken by these exercises, the flying time turns out to be 15 minutes- that is to reach over Trivandrum.
So when the Captain decided to land blindly on a runway he could not see even from a height of 1500m, endangering the lives of all souls on the plane, there were 1379 kgm or 1723 litrs of fuel in the wing tanks. Enough for him to stay up for 28 minutes.
(But had the aircraft been filled up to maximum quantity, that is 20894 kgm, the quantum of the remaining fuel would have been as much as 3711 kgm).
Then why he went for the deadly gamble?
The reason should be one of the three:
- The pilot read the remaining fuel quantity erroneously
- The pilot did understand the figure correctly, but failed to calculate correctly the reaming time he could be airborne with that much fuel
- The fuel quantity indeed was too low. Much lower than the 1723 kgm. May be a couple of hundreds only.
If the reason was 1 or 2, the pilot is guilty of endangering the lives of a plane full of people including himself and the crew.
And if the reason was three, the pilot again is the one responsible- theoretically, at least. It is the duty of the pilot, and pilot alone, to ensure that he had enough fuel in his plane to reach the destination safely.
But it remains just a theory, for most of the private airlines in India, says an Air India commander based at Chennai who flies Gulf routes regularly.
“Being a public sector airlines and because of the presence of an employee’s union, the commanders, who are the real authority when it comes to the safety of the aircraft they fly, still do assert in Air India. But these young boys in the private airlines won’t dare..” says the Captain with over 15 years of flying experience.
And it is not budget airlines alone try to cut cost at all fronts, even if that is by comprising safety.
But even if the fuel planning policy of the airline was a culprit, the Captain of flight 9W555 has still more to answer.
1. The assessment of the significance of an early warning received
Just five minutes after it left Kochi, the Trivandrum Area Control had passed on a crucial piece of information to Flight 9W555. They said the the visibility at Trivandrum, which was 3000 m when the aircraft started its flight to the airport, had suddenly dropped to 1500 m. But the Captain was not to turn back.
He expressed his confidence that he can land on ‘converted minima’. (The minimum practical visibility required to land an aircraft even when the stipulated visibility is not available. The visual range is calculated by converting the meteorological visibility).
He could have made the landing as per this calculation but for just one crucial thing he overlooked. That was clouds. If clouds are there at low altitudes, all the calculations would turn upside down.
And that exactly was what happened a few minutes after at Trivandrum.
2. Briefing the ATC of the available fuel.
On way to Trivandrum from Kochi, the pilot had informed the Trivandrum ATC that he had enough fuel to fly for one more hour. It was when the aircraft was around 12 minutes away from Trivandrum that this information about the fuel quantity was given to the ATC as an answer to a routine query.
So as per his own estimation, he had got only 48 minutes of fuel left when reached above Trivandrum airport. One missed approach will cost 7 minutes, approximately. So the time for three approaches is 21 minutes.
But there was a problem. The fuel consumption for B737-800 aircraft at approach levels (around 3000ft) is almost 1.5 times of the consumption in cruising levels. So at the end of three approaches he would only have fuel for for 18 minutes left instead of 27 minutes. Or roughly 1092 kgm or 1365 litters of fuel.
So when he decided at last to land blindly on Runway 32 after saying a “Good Bye” to the ATC, he actually had got fuel for 18 minutes left, if what he said to Trivandrum ATC before indeed was correct.
Why he went for the do-or-die landing where chances of crash were much so high, with 1365 litters of inflammable fuel in his wings? Perplexing, indeed.
3. The selection of the runway
At Trivandrum, the ILS is installed at the North-West or 32 end of the runway. The other end, the south-east one, is denoted by the shortened bearing, 14.
On the fateful morning, the ILS was not operative as said earlier. So we may think it was natural for the pilot to align to land from 14 end.
But it was not so. At Trivandrum, only wide body aircraft choose runway 14 these days because the width to turn from the other end is less when land on 32 end. For a narrow body aircraft like Boring 737-800, it never was a problem. The obvious choice was 32.
The reasons were two:
- When landing from 32 end, the available runway length would be more. It was because, the threshold, the first point on runway for the aircraft to touch on landing, is only 135m from the end for 32, But for 14, it is 406 m away from the runway end. When attempting to land on a runway in low visibility and in an urgency, no pilot would opt for a short runway.
- When trying to land on a runway with no ILS, the main navigational equipment the pilot got is his eyes. He has to see the runway and surroundings clearly. But when an aircraft approaches from 14 end, the morning sunlight would be falling right on the pilot’s face, effectively blinding him.
But even as the perplexed ATC people were watching, he tried not just once, but three times to land from that very side- wasting precious time and fuel.
When trying to land on the same end of the runway after an approach was missed, the aircraft will have to do a ‘go around’ to align again to that end again. That means more flying and alas, more loss of fuel.
And in the end, from where he could make the landing?
From the 32 end, of course !
4. The timing of the May Day call
When did the captain actually make the May Day call that simply transformed the very character of the whole incident?
Not before the last attempt, as one would expect.
The call had already been made after the second attempt to land. And at that time, the pilot was having enough fuel to stay in the skies comfortably for 23 more minutes.
After the May Day call he tried another attempt at the same, short, runway 14. And only after spending fuel for another 7 minutes that he could realize that runway 32 was the better choice.
The Good Bye to the ATC too to be mentioned here. It is highly unusual to end the communication with the ATC with a Good Bye. Usually it is something like “Good Day”. And the situation in which the Good Bye was uttered never lost on the ATC people.
Jet Airways, the airline and its selection of alternate airports
It is only commonsense that, chances are much high for same climatic conditions to prevail at Trivandrum and at Kochi within a span of an hour or less. If the visibility at Kochi is less, that at Trivandrum too would be less, being located only a few hundred kms away on the same western cost of Kerala. So it is sensible to NOT to set Trivandrum as an alternate airport, if the safety of passengers is indeed the main criteria.
That is why for Air India, the alternate airport is either Bangalore or Chennai and for Air Arabia, it is Coimbatore.
But then why it is Trivandrum for Jet Airways?
The answer is obvious. Private airlines are more eager to reduce the flying expenditure by all means and they think they can get away with it. It is only to fulfill a safety requirement that they fix an alternate airport in the first place. And when being compelled to do so, they select the nearest airport. Nearest airport means less flying time and less fuel.
Some other facts
What actually was the available visibility at Trivandrum when 9W555 did the reckless landing?
It was 1500 m.
And what was the actual distance required?
For runway 32, it was 2400m and for runway 14 it was 2100 m. That was the theory. But for all practical purposes, a visibility of 1500 m is pretty comfortable to land, says an Air India pilot- that is, if the sky is clear. The problem that morning at Trivandrum was that, in addition to the low visibility, there were clouds hanging around at an elevation 450 m or so. So when coming down to land from 900 m, that indeed would have hidden the runway from the pilot.
The May Day call
Unlike many tend to think, the utterance of a May Day call (it was SOS earlier days- Save Our Souls) by an aircraft on the final approaches at an airport is actually depriving the pilot of all the assistance from the ATC. Once the words are out, the ATC will cease all communications with him and he will be on his own then onward. That is to not to disturb the pilot when he frantically would be trying to manage the landing. He then has full freedom to resort to any action he thinks that would save the flight. No one will interrupt him. And on Tuesday, the ATC at Trivandrum did exactly follow this dictum. Even when the aircraft’s nose pointed right towards the tower for a while during the final moments before the landing, they never tried to yell at the pilot, even as they really got terrified. With the May Day call, the preparations to handle the emergency did not escalate, though, at the airport during this period. It was because the airport had declared a full emergency even before the May Day call was made and the SOP for that was already being followed. So there were nothing more to be done on the ground, except staying alert, expecting a crash any moment.