Eighteen people, including both pilots, were killed after an Air India Express flight from Dubai carrying 190 people skidded off a tabletop runway in heavy rain and broke into pieces on Friday evening at Kozhikode airport in Kerala. The Boeing 737 overshot the runway at 7.41 PM and slid into a valley, said Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, who has ordered an investigation.
The pilots, one of them a decorated former fighter pilot, had aborted two landings due to tailwind and had circled the airport several times before the final landing. The area had been slammed by torrential rains since Thursday.
"According to weather radar, the approach was for runway 28 but as the pilots faced difficulties, they went around twice and came from the opposite side on runway 10 and the plane crash-landed," news agency ANI quoted an investigator of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) as saying.
The officer said the aircraft was at full speed while landing and continued to the edge of the runway and fell over in the valley.
The Air India Express flight IX-1344 from Dubai to Calicut was operating under the Vande Bharat Mission to repatriate Indians stranded abroad because of coronavirus lockdowns. The Air India Express, a wholly owned subsidiary of Air India, has only B-737 aircraft in its fleet.
There were 184 passengers on the plane, including 10 babies and 4 cabin crew members. Many passengers were workers returning home after losing their jobs due to the pandemic.
A worse tragedy was averted because the plane did not catch fire after the crash. In the heavy downpour, rescue personnel, including local policemen, pulled out people from the debris and jagged pieces of the plane's fuselage scattered on a slope. Little children, wailing in fear, were found trapped under seats.
Investigating officers from the DGCA, Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, the CEO of Air India express and other officials of Air India and Air India Express were flown to Kozhikode early today to inquire into what happened. An aircraft from Mumbai also took "Angels of Air India" -- grief counsellors -- and other employees to coordinate relief and assistance.
Help centers have been set up in Sharjah and Dubai.
Some of the injured passengers are in a critical condition.
Press Trust of India quoted Riyas, one of the passengers who were rescued. He said the flight went around the airport twice before attempting to land. "I was in the back seat. There was a big noise and I don't know what happened after that," he said.
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were among those who expressed grief after the plane crash.
"Pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode. My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. May the injured recover at the earliest," the prime minister tweeted.
The Kozhikode airport, carved on top of a hill with limited space at the end of the runway, is one of Kerala's most prominent international terminals and handles many flights from abroad.
In 2010, an Air India Express flight had crashed at Mangaluru International Airport in similar circumstances, killing 158 people.
The flight from Dubai had overshot the runway and plunged down the cliff into a wooded valley. An investigation found that the Captain had misjudged the height while landing, resulting in the flight overshooting the runway located on a plateau.
Reports said authorities had not acted on a proposal to install a system at Kozhikode to stop planes from plunging off the edge.
Helplines: Air India Express - 1800 2222 71, Airport Control Room - 0483 2719493, Malappuram Collectorate - 0483 2736320, Kozhikode Collectorate - 0495 2376901.