A Dubai-bound Air India plane flew for three hours with extensive damage to its body after hitting a wall during take-off from Trichy in Tamil Nadu late last night. The pilots, apparently unaware of the damage to the Boeing 737 aircraft, reported that "all systems were functioning normally", but the flight was diverted to Mumbai anyway as precaution.
It turned out to be a "very, very close shave" for with 136 passengers and crew members. It was only when the plane landed in Mumbai early this morning that it was found that its fuselage or body was practically "shredded". The plane could even be a write-off.
The pilots have been grounded for an investigation.
A little after 1.30 am last night, the plane hurtled down the Trichy airport runway at a speed of 250-290 km per hour and nicked the boundary wall before it was up in the air.
Two of its wheels hit the airport perimeter wall, which collapsed on impact, officials said.
The Air Traffic Control then contacted the pilots that the aircraft "might have come in contact" with the airport perimeter wall. "The pilot in command reported that the aircraft systems were operating normally," said Air India Express in a statement.
But it was decided that the plane, which had "climbed to cruising altitude" on its way to Dubai, would be diverted to Mumbai as precaution.
The plane landed in Mumbai around 5.35 am and taxied to the parking stand. All 130 passengers and six crew members were safe.
But officials soon found that the plane's body had tears, cracks and dents that were potentially very dangerous. Images show incredible damage to the belly. Broken parts of the plane's antenna were found on the ground at the Trichy airport, an officer said.
"They scraped the underbelly, had it been a bit lower, that would have been the end," a pilot -not from the flight - said.
Another flight was arranged to take the passengers from Mumbai to Dubai.
The pilot and the co-pilot have been taken off the roster, the airline said, detailing its pilots' flying record.
"The pilot in command was Captain D. Ganesh Babu, who has a flying experience on the B 737 aircraft of 3600 hours, including about 500 hours as commander. The First Officer was Captain Anurag who has an experience of about 3000 hours on the B 737," said its statement.
The aviation watchdog will investigate what happened. "The plane appears to have overshot the runway. We will soon replace the ILS (Instrumentation Landing System) antenna," an official of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation told NDTV.
Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu said he had ordered a private company to look into safety at Air India in a recent review. He said he had also ordered a regular "safety compliance report" of all airlines. "Growth can't be at the expense of safety," the minister tweeted.