Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has said the Air India Express plane, which crashed while attempting to land amid heavy rain on a tabletop runway at Kerala's Kozhikode airport late yesterday evening, was carrying enough fuel to attempt a diversionary landing elsewhere.
Mr Puri also called for patience and warned against speculation while investigations into the tragic accident are completed, acknowledging that there were several questions to be answered.
"I myself have asked these questions. I asked my colleague, CMD of Air India Express, how much fuel did he (the pilot) have? I have an answer. There was fuel. The issue is... let us await the findings of investigation," he said.
"The media is full of speculation - that he made two attempts to land... or if it was wind or rain. First, let us try to get the facts correct. Let the facts come out," the aviation minister added.
Mr Puri's comment comes as sources in national aviation regulator DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) told NDTV the plane landed 1 km down the length of the runway.
Addressing the media after visiting the crash site today, Mr Puri also offered "heartfelt condolences" to the families of the 18 people who died and announced Rs 10 lakh compensation to families of those killed, Rs 2 lakh for those seriously injured and Rs 50,000 for those with minor injuries.
"My heart goes out to the families and friends of the 18 people who lost their lives in the air accident involving @FlyWithIX flight IX-1344 in Kozhikode last evening, and (I) offer my heartfelt condolences," Mr Puri, who reached the city Saturday afternoon, tweeted.
An inquiry has been ordered into the accident, the minister added.
My heart goes out to the families & friends of the 18 people who lost their lives in the air accident involving @FlyWithIX Flight IX-1344 in Kozhikode last evening & offer my heartfelt condolences.— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) August 8, 2020
Reasons for the mishap are being investigated. pic.twitter.com/awEGpU9EmK
The Kerala government has also ordered compensation - Rs 10 lakh to families of those who died.
Earlier today the black box - data and cockpit voice recorders - were recovered from the crash site. These will be critical in helping investigators understand what happened to flight IX-1344.
Both Mr Puri and cabinet colleague V Muraleedharan, the junior Foreign Minister, have played down the role of the Kozhikode runway in the crash, pointing to the experienced pilots at the helm of the aircraft.
"The aircraft was captained and operated by one of our most experienced and distinguished commanders - Deepak Sathe. He had landed on this airfield as many as 27 times, including this year," Mr Puri said.
Wing Commander Sathe was a decorated former Air Force fighter pilot before moving to Air India and then Air India Express. His co-pilot, Captain Akhilesh Kumar, got married just last year.
Mr Muraleedharan told NDTV that around 100 flights had landed on the same runway, without incident, since Vande Bharat Mission flight ops were started in May to bring back Indians stranded abroad by the coronavirus lockdown.
Fortunately, an even greater disaster was avoided because the crashed plane did not catch fire - a pointed made by Mr Puri. "It was fortunate that unlike Mangaluru, where there was a fire, timely action (was taken to) prevent that in this case," he said.
In 2010 another Air India Express flight crashed at Karnataka's Mangaluru International Airport in similar circumstances, killing 158 people.
Flight IX-1344, a Vande Bharat Mission flight repatriating Indians stranded abroad due to the lockdown, had 184 people, including cabin crew, on board as it flew in from Dubai.
Amid heavy monsoon rain the flight circled the Kozhikode airport and made two attempts to land. On its final attempt the plane skidded of the rain-soaked surface, overshot the tabletop runway and hurtled down a valley at 7.41 PM.
Concerns had been raised over the condition of the runway at the Kozhikode airport, with an aviation expert flagging it in a 2011 report that said: "the runway has a steep downslope (and) no safety area".
Helplines: Air India Express - 1800 2222 71, Airport Control Room - 0483 2719493, Malappuram Collectorate - 0483 2736320, Kozhikode Collectorate - 0495 2376901