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Major goof, SpiceJet lands on closed runway

This incident reported by the Times of India Kolkata takes the cake for serious goof-ups.

Monday December 1, 2008 Time: 14:44 local (0914 Zulu). SpiceJet Bagdogra-Kolkata flight SG 324 is approaching Kolkata airport for landing. The pilot radios the air traffic controller on duty for clearance. The controller asks the pilot to align the aircraft to land on the secondary runway: “Confirm runway 19R in sight?” [19R means runway 19 Right] The pilot checks the instrument panel and replies he’s in position: “Affirm (yes).” The controller gives the all clear: “Clear to land runway 19R”

Two minutes later, the pilot touched down and all hell broke loose.

Image courtesy The Telegraph
Instead of the secondary runway, the pilot had inexplicably landed on the primary runway that was shut for repairs.

“Roger Stop! Danger ahead, danger ahead,” the controller screamed to the pilot. Barely 8,000 ft away from the touchdown point, 25 labourers stood dumbfounded in horror for a second and then began running helter skelter. A Boeing 737-800 aircraft was hurtling towards them at 250 kmph.

Meanwhile, realizing the mistake, the pilot put the engine on reverse thrust and applied the brakes and prayed that the aircraft stopped before disaster struck. After what seemed an eternity, but was actually a few seconds, the plane jerked to a halt 3,100 ft from the construction materials and machines.

Inside the aircraft, the 139 passengers felt the violent jerk and were flung ahead. But the restraining safety belt averted any injury. Little did they know that they had been yards away from a major mishap.

It was the second close shave for the airline in less than two years. On June 13 last year, Jammu-Delhi SpiceJet flight SG 851 carrying 171 passengers had similarly landed on the wrong runway in Delhi. Luckily, there were no men or machines on the landing strip then. Probe into the incident showed that the pilot did not use the instrument landing system but had opted for visual approach that led to the error.

Why the error was repeated in Kolkata on Monday is baffling as a notice had been issued to airmen that the primary runway would be shut from 1.15 pm to 3.15 pm. “A NOTAM (Notice To Air Men) was in place. An error should not have occurred,” a senior captain said.

The usual protocol for the ATC is to cease voice messages after giving final landing clearance till 30 seconds after touchdown for the pilot to function without a lapse in concentration. But on Monday, the controller realized that 30 seconds could prove too costly and radioed the SOS message barely 12 seconds after touchdown.

“The air traffic controller showed great presence of mind and saved the day,” said an airport official.

Incidentally, the controller realised the pilot’s mistake just prior to touchdown. But it was too late to ask him to abort landing. “He (the controller) noticed the error when the aircraft was barely 50 ft away from the threshold or touchdown point of the primary runway. Asking the pilot to turn around from such short distance would have been extremely risky,” an ATC official explained.

Aviation experts said Boeing 737-800 aircraft can come to a halt within 2,500 ft from touchdown point, but pilots use the runway length to slow down the aircraft gradually. “When using the primary runway, we slow down a Boeing 737-800 at a distance of 6,000 ft before entering the taxiway C,” said the pilot.

After the SpiceJet aircraft halted, maintenance equipment were removed from the section of the runway to allow the aircraft to exit it through taxiway C. “Despite the scare, the airport staff acted promptly and the aircraft was able to move out of the runway in 10 minutes. There were no major delays due to this incident,” said Kolkata Airport general manager (operations) Mahesh Kaul.

The JetLite flight to Delhi departed at 2.50 pm as scheduled using the secondary runway even as the staff were evacuating machinery from the primary runway for the SpiceJet plane to exit.

Following the incident, the director general of civil aviation has initiated an inquiry. Though prima facie evidence points to pilot error, the communication between the ATC and the cockpit that is recorded at both ends will be reviewed. Both the pilot and the co-pilot involved in the incident have been de-rostered .

SpiceJet chief executive officer Sanjay Agarwal said the airline was looking into the incident seriously. “The matter is being thoroughly investigated. We will certainly get to the bottom of this and take all necessary steps to prevent it from happening in the future,” he said.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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