Question mark over probe body composition

by Tauqeer Abbas

Shafaqna Pakistan: Representatives of pilots’ association and aviation experts have expressed concern over the handling of the investigation into the jetliner (PK-8303) crash by the air force-dominated probe team appointed by the government.

Pakistan Airlines’ Pilots Association (Palpa) Secretary Capt Imran Narejo, while talking to Dawn over phone on Saturday, said the “investigation team was not balanced”, because it lacked the representation of commercial pilots. Commercial pilots better understood the accidents involving commercial jetliners, he explained.

The federal government appointed a four-member “investigation team” comprising three officials of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, two of whom are Air Force officers, and the fourth member has been co-opted from Pakistan Air Force’s safety board. There is no commercial pilot in the team, which has been asked to submit its findings “within the shortest possible time”.

Another Palpa official, who did not want to be named, said it was crucial for any incident investigation to include a “rated pilot” for the type of the aircraft involved in the accident.

Another senior pilot, who has in the past held senior management positions in PIA, concurred with this view and said that the absence of a pilot with experience on that particular type of aircraft would always remain a handicap for the investigation.

The reservations over the composition of the probe team pertain to their experience, specific knowledge about the crashed jet, and to an extent conflict of interest as a serving Air Marshal from PAF is heading PIA whose internal workings and condition of fleet would also come under question during the investigations.

PIA Chief Executive Office Air Marshal Arshad Malik addressing a press conference on Friday emphasised that the passenger plane was flight worthy and crew was adequately trained.

The pilots and aviation experts believe that Palpa, representatives of international pilots’ bodies, and an experienced pilot should have been included in the team to dig out facts and arrive at the right conclusion.

“It’s about preventing such accidents from recurring, irrespective of who is ultimately held responsible,” Capt Narejo insisted.

Events leading to crash

PIA’s A-320-214 bearing tail number AP-BLD with 99 on board crashed in Karachi, while repeating an attempt to land. Ninety-seven of the passengers perished in the crash, while two miraculously survived.

The investigators would have to look at the crash from various angles including the physical and mental condition of the pilot, flight worthiness of the aircraft, the malfunctioning suffered during the approach to landing, and any other factor/s that could have contributed to the accident.

The aircraft, while making its first approach to landing was, as per the conversation between the pilot and air control tower, at a higher altitude than the normal. It was at 3,500 feet at five miles. When the pilot was alerted by the control tower about the high altitude, he said he was “comfortable” with it and was approaching runway 25L. The aircraft, pilots say, should have ideally been at 1,600 feet at that point.

The two questions, which arise here, are why the aircraft had a belated descend and whether it was the right decision of the pilot to commit to landing instead of going for an orbit despite the unusual altitude.

His colleagues believe that management’s pressure for “efficiency” could be one of the reasons for this decision of the pilot. He may be thinking of being questioned about doing the orbit by the flight operations directorate, his colleagues suspect.

Moreover, an alarm could be heard in the cockpit during pilot’s conversation with tower when the tower was giving him clearance to land.

The alarm, which was described by a senior pilot as “master warning” is related to configuration issues. Either the aircraft was at higher speed for the flap configuration at that time or his landing gear had malfunctioned. The alarm could also be due to a dual hydraulic failure or engine(s) catching fire.

It would be pertinent to know what caused that alarm and the pilot in the recorded conversations is not heard mentioning the malfunctioning at that point of time to the tower.

However, the pilot then chose to ‘go around’ and said he will come back for 25L. This (go-around) is a technical term for aborted landing and can be requested by either pilot or directed by the air tower because of issues in landing. The reason for going around has to be determined by the investigators and in greatly possibility was linked to the factor behind the alarm in the cockpit.

The tower then asked him to pull up to 3,000 feet and turn left heading 110. However, minutes later the tower told the pilot that he was dropping to 2,000 feet. In response the pilot took a brief sigh and said he was trying to maintain that altitude. Soon afterwards he reported loss of engine and said he was “proceeding direct” meaning that he was going for a crash landing.

The controller cleared the flight to land with both runways (25L and 25R) available. However, pilot could be heard giving distress signal “May Day, May Day, May Day”.

Picture of the aircraft at this position show that RAT air turbine had been deployed, which is an indication that both engines had shut down. The turbine, pilots say, provide for the continued functioning of flight controls in the event of hydraulic malfunctioning. However, the flight controls in such a condition are “partial and sluggish”, according to a pilot.

The investigators would have to see what caused both engines to stop working. It could be a bird hit or the pilot accidentally shutting off the wrong engine. It is rare for both engines to shut down simultaneously.

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