By S. M. Hali
The crash of Bhoja Airlines Boeing 737 aircraft, while trying to execute a landing at Benazir Bhutto International Airport, is the second for the same airport within 21 months and speaks volumes for poor standards of flight safety. The previous air crash, a private airline Airblue Flight 202 was a scheduled domestic passenger flight which crashed on 28 July 2010 near Islamabad, killing all 146 passengers and six crew on board. It is the deadliest air accident to occur in Pakistan to date. The relatively new aircraft, an Airbus A321-231, crashed in the Margalla Hills north of Islamabad during a flight from Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport to Benazir Bhutto International Airport. Air traffic controllers reportedly lost contact with the flight crew during its attempt to land in dense fog and heavy monsoon rain.
The Black Box comprising the cockpit voice and flight data recorders of the ill fated aircraft was recovered and dispatched to the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation Civile (BEA) in France for interpreting the recordings. The final inquiry report, as issued by Pakistan's Civil Aviation Authority in November 2011 cited a lack of professionalism in the cockpit crew along with poor weather as primary factors in the crash. The weather conditions before the accident, as detailed by the 03:00 UTC (08:00 PST) Meteorological Aviation Report (METAR) for Benazir Bhutto International Airport, were as follows: Wind from 50° (approximately north east) at 16 knots (30 km/h). Visibility 2 kilometers (1.2 mi), rain, a few (1-2 okta) clouds at 1,500 feet (460 m), a few clouds at 3,000 feet (910 m) with towering cumulus. Scattered (3-4 okta) clouds at 4,000 feet (1,200 m), broken (5-7 okta) clouds at 10,000 feet (3,000 m). Temperature 24°C, dewpoint 23°C, aerodrome pressure (QNH) 1006.5hPa 23. This is hardly the recipe for an air accident under modern aviation standards but where the things started to go wrong was that the Instrument Landing System (ILS) Category 1 is installed for Benazir Bhutto Airport’s Chaklala airfield for Runway direction 30, from where the traffic normally operates. That fateful day, the wind direction being north east, the opposite end of the runway i.e. 12 was in use. The aircraft thus approached Islamabad from the southeast, following a procedure that required it to fly toward the airport until making visual contact. It was then to have flown around the airport to the east and north, keeping within a distance of 5 nautical miles (9.3 km), until lining up with runway 12, which faces toward the southeast. The aircraft, however crashed in the mountains outside the 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) radius, approximately 8 nautical miles (15 km) north of the airport, facing almost due west, before it could line up with runway 12 for final approach.
In the inquiry report, very conveniently, the responsibility was thrown on the aircrew, who had perished with the aircraft but a number ofissues, which necessitated action by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Ministry of Defence (MoD), were criminally either omitted from the inquiry or not actioned upon, leading to complacency, resulting in the fatal accident of Bhoja Air Flight 213 on April 20, 2012. As pointed out above, hpw Runway 12 of Benazir Bhutto International Airport does not have landing aids. Bhoja Air Flight 213 did not try and execute a landing for Runway 12 but landing aid for both ends of the runway should have been installed. The role of the NDMA did not come into question during the search and rescue operation for the possible survivors of the Airblue Flight 202. The crash site was in the hills but very close to the head-office of NDMA. Tardy response and lack of training in rescue procedures for air-crash victims may have contributed to total annihilation of the entire complement of passengers and crew on board the ill-fated aircraft.
No rescue equipment was either purchased nor any rescue drill carried out after the Airblue disaster. Resultantly, the crash of Bhoja Air Flight 213, again despite being close to the capital city, saw the rescuers attempting to find body parts in total darkness or with the help of flashlights and cell-phone illumination. The crash took place at sunset and rescuers had to actually wait till sunrise to facilitate their search operation. Such criminal neglect should be taken cognizance of.
The other crucial aspect is the placement of the air investigation board. In Pakistan it reports to the Director General CAA, who in turn is under the MoD. It is evident from the inquiry report of the Airblue Flight 202 that the lapses of CAA, Air Traffic Control as well as NDMA were covered up and blame was apportioned upon only the pilot and weather. The weather of Benazir Bhutto International Airport is affected by western disturbances in winter and monsoons in summer but the proximity to the Potohar Plateau and Margalla Hills create local buildup of clouds. Meteorological forecasts are no longer based on guesswork and conjecture. It has become an exact science. The scientific development of satellite pictures, thermal imagery, Doppler radars and other modern gadgetry which measure variations in wind pattern like wind shear, up and down drafts, clear air turbulence and other critical phenomenon make the task of avoiding inclement weather easier. Additionally, on board gadgetry enables the pilot to detect hostile weather conditions and avoid it.
In the case of Bhoja Air Flight 213, the age of the aircraft is also in question. It must be clear that as long as the fuselage or wings of an aircraft do not suffer from structural stress and it has undergone periodic inspections and certifications, it is safe to fly. The avionics and electronics, if maintained properly, enhance the flying life of aircraft. In the US and UK, World War II vintage military aircraft are not only still being flown but indulge in thrilling aerobatics and maneuvers. The key question is certification of air-worthiness.
The aspects that need to be taken into consideration are making the Air Investigation Board independent. The airworthiness certification to be transparent and installation of modern gadgetry on various airports in use as well as make them mandatory for airlines to install the latest equipment to make flying safe. There is dire need to instill flight safety consciousness to lure passengers back to use air travel.