‘Landing at Kozhikode airport amid rainfall is like approaching a black hole’

Tabletop runway does not have overshoot area, making the airfield highly critical

plane-crash-kozhikode-reuters Air India Express passenger plane that crashed when it overshot the runway at Kozhikode airport | Reuters

After the Mangalore air crash of 2010, a similar tragedy was waiting to happen at Kerala’s Kozhikode airport with a tabletop runway which does not have overshoot area, making the airfield highly critical.

In India, Mangalore, Kozhikode and Lengpui (Mizoram) airports are known for being tabletop airports (scheduled fights operation) that require extra skill and caution from pilots to operate due to space constraints.

After the Mangalore mishap, Friday's crash at Kozhikode airport was the second such incident where a tabletop runway was involved. In aviation parlance, a "tabletop runway" is a runway that is located on the top of a plateau or hill with one or both ends adjacent to a steep precipice which drops into a deep gorge.

Calicut International Airport also known as Karipur Airport, is located at Karipur in Malappuram district, near Kozhikode. As per Airport Authority of India records of 50 busiest airports in India (2019-2020), it is the 17th busiest airport in the country in terms of passenger traffic and cargo handling. The Kozhikode airport, one of Kerala’s three international airports, was given the status of international airport on February 2, 2006.

“In India, Mangalore and Kozhikode airports are considered to be highly critical airfields, as the margin of error for the pilot is very less. There is not enough safe area for the pilot to land into after he loses control of the aircraft,’’ said an Air India pilot who did not wish to named. Like, Mangalore, Kozhikode airport is also situated on the hill top, surrounded by valley of thick forest with limited length of runway. Runway length is close to 9,000 ft.

Another pilot, who has done several landings at Kozhikode airport said: "It lacks the right kind of lighting required on the runway and the weather even makes it worse out there. The rain is blinding during the night and it’s like approaching a black hole."

Captain Deepak Sathe, pilot of the Air India Flight IX-1344 that crashed at Kozhikode, was an experienced hand with over 36 years of flying. Sathe was a former IAF pilot who flew the MiG 21 fighter jet during 21 years of his service, before joining Air India as commercial pilot in 2005. He was also given Sword of Honour at the Air Force Academy in Hyderabad. Sathe and his co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar were killed in the crash.

Landing on tabletop runways requires extra precautions and additional training, as it does not provide an overshoot area and makes the airfield unsuitable for any mistakes. The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) regularly conducts training course for the pilots who land on such airports.

Pilots are advised to carry out smooth landings and to do so, the pilots have to let the aircraft sail along the runway for some time which results in loss of 200 to 300 metres of the runway.  And in case of tabletop airports, pilots cannot afford to lose 200-300 metres, as runway length is already limited, explained a pilot.

While adding that, ideally, you need much bigger runways to land big international aircraft, a pilot said, "In this weather, you have to actually try to land the aircraft firmly at the correct point even if it tends towards a hard landing, as that is always safer than to go for a smooth touch down. Otherwise, in the bargain you end up landing deep on the runway."

He added: "And also when you try to make a smooth landing on a wet runway when it is raining, with strong cross winds, there is a risk of the winds pushing you sideways off the runway which is already slippery. Hence there is a danger of the aircraft skidding off the runway if you don't make a positive contact between the wheels of the aircraft and the runway by a firm landing.”

Another pilot said all night operations to Kozhikode should be stopped in order to ensure safety as there are no centre line lights on that runway. "On top of that, the runway is on a table top with a hump on both sides of the runway when you come to land on runway 10 or 28," he said.

Union Minister V. Muraleedharan, also a parliamentarian from Kerala, while arriving at the crash site, claimed that since May 7, under the Vande Bharat Mission, around 100 flights have landed at Kozhikode airport.
Arvind Singh, Chairman of Airport Authority of India said," Directorate General of Civil Aviation had some issues with the runway in 2015, but after resolving those issues, clearance was given to it in 2019. The jumbo jets of Air India also used to land there."

An aviation industry insider disclosed that the businessmen community of Mangalore apparently put pressure on the civil aviation ministry to upgrade it into international operation. Several flights for Gulf countries operate from this airport. "In the absence of emergency landing facility which includes additional area on runway, Kozhikode has always been vulnerable to accident. Now, Boeing 747 is landing at Kozhikode and in case of emergency landing, the airport does not have any space to deal with it,’’ said the insider who did not want to be named.

Besides tabletop airports, other airports like Jammu, Srinagar and even Patna are considered to be critical to land due to short runway length. But in these airports, only smaller planes land, which reduces the risk of overshooting the runway.

Meanwhile, Binoy Viswam, Rajya Sabha MP and President of Alliance Air Employees Union said that Air India  has been affected by the government's decision to privatise the national carrier.  He added that the uncertainty over the future as well as the government’s decision to cut wages and introduced ‘leave without pay’ policy has caused great mental stress to all employees.

"In such circumstances, it is possible that the maintenance and safety of aircraft is also jeopardised and it is important that the enquiry looks into these aspects as well," said Viswam, who is also Secretary, National Council, Communist Party of India.