Sunday, December 14, 2014

Air India plane almost hit UAV in Leh after ATC failure

NEW DELHI: This is possibly the closest a close shave can get. 

 An Air India aircraft operating the ultra difficult Delhi-Leh sector recently was prevented by a disaster twice on the same day — once each time it was approaching to land in Leh on the two flights it operated that day — by the sheer presence of mind shown by its pilots. While communication failure at Leh air traffic control (ATC) tower was the common problem in both the approaches, an unmanned aerrial vehicle added to the problem on the second flight. 

On the first approach, AI's Airbus A-320 flying in as AI 3449 experienced communication failure with the air traffic control (ATC) tower managed by Indian Air Force at this defence air field. "In the case of a communication failure, green flares are fired to ask the aircraft approaching to land or red flares are shot to communicate that landing permission has not been given. That day, the experienced pilots (Leh flight is given only to specially trained pilots) for the first landed after seeing a green flare being fired from the Leh airport," said sources.

The aircraft landed safely and did a quick return flight to Delhi. The same pilots then flew the same aircraft back to Leh. The Leh airport has a short window of flight operations that begins from 22 minutes after sunrise (by when shadows of nearby hills do not linger over the airfield) to just after noon from when winds become so strong that aircraft movement is not possible. 

"On the second approach to Leh, once again there was a communication failure at the ATC. This time no green flares were fired and the aircraft did a go around when it was just seconds away from touchdown. While climbing up after the aborted landing, the pilots were in for another shock. An UAV was in their go-around flight path. The aircraft barely missed this UAV by about 100 feet," said sources.

The aircraft then climbed to 14,500 feet before making a stable approach to land in the second attempt. "On arrival, the AI crew and IAF ATC had an argument following which a violation was filed against the pilots who had done a very good job. The flight out of Leh — that was to be an army charter to fly out soldiers from Leh — was cancelled and grounded," said sources.

After returning to Delhi the next day, the pilots filed a strong complaint of this safety violation. The union of erstwhile Indian Airlines' pilots who operate the A-320s are now raising this issue with the airline and the aviation regulator to ensure that these kinds of serious safety hazards do not recur at high-altitude Leh which is the most difficult airport in India for flight operations.


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