When evidence reached scrap metal shops

Air India Express flight 812: An investigation gone hauntingly wrong-II

By Jacob K Philip
When Air India’s Jumbo Jet Emperor Kanishka exploded mid-flight and got scattered in Atlantic near Ireland cost on June 23, 1985, the investigators had a gigantic task at hand. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police of Canada organised dives in excess of 7,000 feet in 1985, 1989 and 1991 to collect wreckage from the ocean floor, to pick up the aircraft debris scattered across the ocean floor.The numerous parts recovered from the thousands of squire meters beneath the sea by where all cleaned, numbered and shipped to a facility in Ireland where they were all kept for more than two decades. The recovered parts were latter arranged to re-create the shape of the aircraft, to find out what exactly caused the explosion.
In case of Pan American World Airways’ Pan Am Flight 103 that was disintegrated in an explosion many thousands of feet above southern Scotland, on 21 December 1988 too, the same procedure repeated. Only that, the recovery of parts of size ranging from a few cm to many meters from the acres of barren land of Lockerbie village was comparatively easy. More than 10,000 pieces of debris were retrieved, tagged and entered into a computer tracking system. The fuselage of the aircraft was reconstructed by air accident investigators, revealing a 20-inch (510 mm) hole consistent with an explosion in the forward cargo hold.

Here in India too, the air crash investigators are obliged to conduct the same exercise. As per the Procedure Manualof Accident/ incident investigation, published by DGCA (Issue I rev 2 dated 5.10.2006),  the reconstruction of the aircraft with all the debris collected carefully from the crash is mandatory.

Rule 9.7.2:

Stage 1 Identify the various pieces and arrange them in their relative positions
Stage 2 Examine in detail the damage to each piece, and establish the relationship of this damage to the damage on adjacent or associated pieces.

The care with which the parts are to handled is much too clear from the following rules

9.17.2.1

Before commencing reconstruction work, 1. Photograph the entire site and wreckage.2. Complete the wreckage distribution chart.3. Inspect and make notes on the manner in which the various pieces were first found, by walking around the site.

9.17.2.2:

The difficulty in reconstructing a component, such as a wing, lies in identifying the various pieces of wreckage. If the wing has broken up into a few large pieces, the task is relatively simple. If, on the other hand, the wing has broken into a number of small pieces as a result of high impact speed, reconstruction can be extremely difficult. The most positive means of identification are: • Part numbers which are stamped on most aircraft parts, which can be checked against the aircraft parts catalogue• Colouring (either paint or primer)• Type of material and construction• External markings• Rivet or screw size and spacing.

The many visits I could make to the crash site of Air India Express Flight 812 and the nearby Mangalore airport during the months of May, June and July 2010 had made one thing much too clear.
Air India, the owner of the aircraft and the Court of Inquiry that investigated the  crash couldn’t have shown more disregard to the above stipulations.
For forty days on a stretch after the May 22 crash, the debris had remained in the crash site soaked in dust and mud enduring heavy rain and sun.
And the removal of these precious evidence to ‘reconstruct’, the shape of the aircraft couldn’t have been more hilarious.

Fiza, a local construction firm was hired to do the job and they heaped the picked up parts  in lorries and then dumped on an open platform near the new terminal of Mangalore airport. According to an official of Fiza, the total weight of the debris recovered from the crash site was just 16 tonnes.It may be remembered that the total empty weight of a Boeing 737-800 is 41 tonnes. To assume that 25 tonnes of a flying machine which was mostly metal and fire resistant composites were consumed by fire, one would need wildest of imaginations.
So what happened to the remaining parts?
All of Mangalore knew the answer.
Just after Air India’s debris removal was officially complete and the police men were withdrawn from the site, hoards of scrap metal collectors descended on the crash site.It was for three continuous days that the ‘metal scavengers’ looted the site. The bounty was so much so that they had to hire even mini lorries to ship it to various scrap dealers in Mangalore city.

Now we may read this sacred rule 6.5.2:

Whenever an accident occurs, the Owner, Operator, Pilot-in-Command, Co-pilot of the aircraft shall take all reasonable measures to protect the evidence and to maintain safe custody of the aircraft and its contents for such a period as may be necessary for the purposes of an investigation subject to the Indian Aircraft Rules 1937. Safe custody shall include protection against further damage, access by unauthorized persons.

The Court of Inquiry that landed again at Mangalore on June 13, 2010, had done a scientific examination of the ‘reconstructed’ aircraft, the media people were told, though none of them were ever allowed near the ‘reconstruction’.
And this was how they actually done it. (I could take this with my digital camera two days after the CoI team left):

It was while examining these  16 tonnes of the 41 that a member of the CoI team noticed the downward position of the flap locator, a finger sized metallic switch in cockpit used to move the flaps in the wings. The reason for the aircraft to generate not enough lift to take off in the last moment was becoming clear then.  The panicked pilots must have forgotten to to push up the switch.

If a finger sized metallic part could have spoken so much about the crash, imagine the sheer volume of the precious evidence the scrap metal collectors of Mangalore merrily sold in numerous shops scattered across the city?

(To be continued)

Jacob K Philip is Editor of Aviation India

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