Kingfisher flight almost runs out of fuel midair

According to a report by DNA, on January 3, 2009, a Kingfisher Airlines Airbus A320, flight IT 335 with 86 passengers on board, landed at New Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) with just about 20 minutes fuel on-board, a mere 5 minutes short of a “Mayday”.

As per standard aviation practice, flights always carry enough fuel for it’s planned route to the destination airport, plus some hovering time, and for a diversion to an alternate airport. The flight left Mumbai at 19:45 with enough fuel to reach its scheduled destination of New Delhi by 21:30 and the immediate alternate diversion airports of Jaipur or Lucknow.

Winter fog is a problem for the Delhi area, and normally, airlines in India assign a CAT-III licensed pilot for flights that land in Delhi after 21:00, since these pilots are licensed to land in much poorer visibility, typically 100 meters. (A detailed explanation of CAT is below in this article).

However the pilot on this flight, Tariq Khan was licensed for only CAT-I, i.e. minimum 550 meters of visibility.

Seeds are sown
As per the article, minutes before landing, the air traffic control (ATC) at Delhi airport informed the pilot that visibility had dropped to CAT-III conditions, which meant the pilot would not be able to see beyond 100 metres. The source said Khan sought a landing at Jaipur, but permission was denied due to lack of parking space. Khan then decided to divert the flight to Lucknow as he had already consumed a lot of fuel hovering over Delhi.

When Khan was halfway to Lucknow, which is 55 minutes flying time from Delhi, the Delhi ATC informed him that the fog had lifted and he could return, the source said.

The big risk
The aircraft would have consumed nearly 45% of its additional fuel by this time. Instead of opting to land at Lucknow, refuel, and fly back to Delhi, Khan decided to head back to the capital.

Once he reached Delhi, he was ninth in the landing queue. By now, the plane was dangerously low on fuel with just a few kilolitres left in the tank.

The incident
Other sources indicate that the flight landed with only 940 kilograms of fuel on-board, which translates to about 20 minutes flying time.

When usable fuel remaining is less than 30 minutes endurance, pilots declare a “Pan Pan” or urgency. When fuel remaining is less than 15 minutes endurance, pilot MUST declare “Mayday” or distress/emergency.

A crisis was averted only after the pilot Tarig Khan requested the ATC, and obtained, a “fuel priority” landing, allowing him to jump the other planes ahead in the queue.

What Kingfisher says
Confirming the incident, Kingfisher spokesperson Prakash Mirpuri told DNA on Monday that the pilot did ask for preferential landing at Delhi as he was running low on fuel. The aircraft was in the queue for landing when visibility at Delhi dropped. The captain then requested a diversion to an alternate designated airfield, which was Jaipur. As the parking bays were full, the aircraft was diverted to Lucknow, Mirpuri said.

“En route Lucknow the weather deteriorated. Consequently, the aircraft was turned back to Delhi and the captain requested priority sequencing for landing,” Mirpuri said in his written communication to DNA.

Kingfisher’s flight safety department summoned captain Khan to seek an explanation on Sunday. Mirpuri termed it a “routine enquiry” by the department whenever there was a deviation from the assigned route.

Your view
Hindsight is always 20-20, but what is your opinion on the pilot’s actions ?

Share your thoughts via a comment.

My view

  1. While I agree the pilot took some risks, we must consider the following Weather at Delhi was clear when the flight took off from Mumbai
  2. 9pm-12mid night is rush hour at Delhi, obviously the flight must have been in a hold. The visibility dropped during this time
  3. The pilot has diverted to Lucknow as per procedure. Half way there, he is informed Delhi is back to Cat-I visibility. Was he explicitly informed of the queue ? If yes, he deserves to be hanged, but no commercial pilot I know, is that reckless.
  4. So that will imply the pilot was informed about the queue, only when he reached Delhi a second time.
  5. At this point he has no choice. As per procedure, he declares a PAN PAN PAN, requests and is given a priority landing. Perfectly as per operating procedures.

Explanation of ILS (instrument landing system) CATegories

There are three categories of ILS which support similarly named categories of operation. In each case a suitably equipped aircraft and appropriately qualified crew are required.

  • Category I – A precision instrument approach and landing with a decision height not lower than 200 feet (61 m) above touchdown zone elevation and with either a visibility not less than 800 meters (2,625 ft) or a runway visual range not less than 550 meters (1,804 ft).
  • Category II – Category II operation: A precision instrument approach and landing with a decision height lower than 200 feet (61 m) above touchdown zone elevation but not lower than 100 feet (30 m), and a runway visual range not less than 350 meters (1,148 ft).
  • Category III is further subdivided
    • Category III A – A precision instrument approach and landing with:
      • a) a decision height lower than 100 feet (30 m) above touchdown zone elevation, or no decision height; and
      • b) a runway visual range not less than 200 meters (656ft).
    • Category III B – A precision instrument approach and landing with:
      • a) a decision height lower than 50 feet (15 m) above touchdown zone elevation, or no decision height; and
      • b) a runway visual range less than 200 meters (656 ft) but not less than 50 meters (164 ft).
    • Category III C – A precision instrument approach and landing with no decision height and no runway visual range limitations. A Category III C system is capable of using an aircraft’s autopilot to land the aircraft and can also provide guidance along the runway surface.

Source: Wikipedia

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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