Flight skids off runway; 18 people dead


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Officials say the repatriation flight was carrying Indian citizens back to the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

USA TODAY

An Air India Express flight with 190 people on board skidded off a runway Friday and split the aircraft in two, killing more than a dozen people.

The death toll rose Saturday to 18, according to media reports, and the majority of passengers were taken to the hospital. Both pilots died in the crash while the four crew members survived, the airline said in a statement.

The crash happened Friday during heavy rain in southern India at Kozhikode Calicut International Airport. The flight “overshot the runway in rainy conditions and went down” the slope, breaking into two pieces upon impact, said India’s Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep S. Puri in a statement. 

The runway is on a hilltop with deep gorges on either side, making it difficult to land, said Amitabh Kant, who heads the government’s planning commission. 

“The incident happened because of heavy rains and poor visibility. This is truly devastating,” he told NDTV news channel.

The flight departed from Dubai, NDTV reported. Officials said it was a repatriation flight carrying Indian citizens home; regular commercial flights have been halted there since the coronavirus outbreak.

No fire was reported on the Boeing 737 aircraft after it landed and broke into two pieces, said Rajiv Jain, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Ministry. He said there were 174 adult passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and four cabin crew on board the aircraft. 

Reports of how many people were critically injured vary. Puri tweeted that there were three while Abdul Karim, senior Kerala state police officer, said 15 people were in critical condition. He said rescue operations had been completed Saturday. 

An inquiry will be conducted by the ministry’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, Puri said.

The 9,350-foot runway ends is on a flat hilltop with deep gorges on either side ending in a 112-foot drop.

The runway end safety area was expanded in 2018 to accommodate wide-body aircraft. It meets United Nations international civil aviation requirements, but the U.N. agency recommends a buffer that is 492 feet longer than what exists at Kozhikode airport, according to Harro Ranter, chief executive of the Aviation Safety Network online database.

Dubai-based aviation consultant Mark Martin said that while it was too early to determine the cause of the crash, annual monsoon conditions appeared to be a factor.

“Low visibility, wet runway, low cloud base, all leading to very poor braking action is what looks like led to where we are at the moment with this crash,” Martin said, calling for the European Aviation Safety Agency and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to assist with the Indian government’s investigation.

Indian President Rashtrapati Bhavan tweeted about the incident Friday.

“Deeply distressed to hear about the tragic plane crash of Air India Express flight at Kozhikode, Kerala,” his statement read. “Spoke to @KeralaGovernor Shri Arif Mohammed Khan and inquired about the situation. Thoughts and prayers with affected passengers, crew members and their families.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode,” and that he had spoken to Kerala’s top elected official.

The worst air disaster in India was on Nov. 12, 1996, when a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collided midair with a Kazakhastan Airlines Flight near Charki Dadri in Haryana state, killing all 349 on board the two planes.

A similar tragedy to Friday’s was narrowly avoided at the same airport a year ago, when an Air India Express flight suffered a tail strike upon landing. None of the 180 passengers of that flight were injured.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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