Truth behind aborted Jet Airways take off at Saudi airport. Are Indian pilots being made scapegoats?

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India’s DGCA on Monday announced that it was suspending the licences of two Jet Airways pilots, who were involved in attempting to take off a Mumbai bound Boeing B737, VTJFS aircraft from Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport on 3 August

The flight with 149 people on board had begun its operation and accelerated on what looked like a well-lit active runway. However, no sooner had the plane gain the speed of 100 knots (approximately 185 kms/hour), were the pilots on board contacted by the Air Traffic Control to immediately abort the take off. They were told that the stretch on which they were attempting the take off was not the runway, but a taxiway, which had a barrier straight ahead!

The pilots had no option but to apply the emergency brake and abort the take off. This resulted in the veering off of the plane to the runway before passengers had to be evacuated through emergency exits. Taking a dim view of the incident, India’s aviation watchdog wasted no time in suspending the flying licence of the two pilots while holding them squarely responsible for what could have resulted in a huge disaster.

A statement by the DGCA said, “The DGCA has suspended the flying licence of both the pilots involved in runway excursion incident at Riyadh, pending investigation.” A statement by Saudi Aviation Investigation Bureau too appeared to blame the pilots implying that there was no reason for the Jet Airways pilots to mistake the taxiway for the runway.

A statement by the AIB said, “Initial factual information confirmed that the aircraft attempted to take off from taxiway (K) parallel to take off designated runway (R33) while the visibility was high and there was no obstacle of FOD (foreign object) on the taxiway.

“The aircraft accelerated with full take off power and exceeded the taxiway onto an unpaved area, ending up close to the exit of taxiway (GF), north of taxiway (K).”

But, were the DGCA and the AIB telling the whole truth? The facts appear to spectacularly negate their claims.

Breach of established protocol by authorities

While the Notice to Airmen, NOTAM as it is popularly known as and issued by respective airport authorities, did highlight the existence of a taxiway marked as K just before the active runway, the chart available on board showed that the taxiway did not exist. (See the chart given to the two pilots on 3 August below). The chart below simply has the active runway in dark black strips but no sign of existence of the taxiway. This is what the two Jet Airways pilots would have understood before taken off on 3 August.

Contrast this to the aerial view of Riyadh airport. Not only does the taxiway become visible, but the danger ahead due to the existence of a rugged surface (see below) too can be seen clearly.

Janta Ka Reporter spoke to a Jet Airways pilot, who frequently flew to Saudi destinations. Wishing to remain anonymous, he said, “The outcome could have been catastrophic. Every time we fly, we are given a flight release package that usually consists of 80-100 pages. On one of these pages, the NOTAM said in small font that there was a taxiway. But the chart, that serves as a navigation system for pilots had no mention of it.

“The chart that you have, was what was given to the two pilots of Mumbai-bound flight that night. It was criminal on the part of the authorities to hand over the documents that had an uncharted taxiway just next to the active runway. What do you expect the pilots to do in this case when the chart shows no existence of a taxiway? What if a landing airplane mistook K taxiway as runway and landed on it? A big accident was waiting to happen.’

Another Jet Airways pilot, who has flown between Mumbai and Riyadh in the past said, “Can you believe that Taxiway K is wider than the runway and it’s well lit. Unless you’ve flown from here in the past, you are quite likely to mistake the taxiway as the main runway. Having no mention of the taxiway in the chart provided to the pilots was a disastrous mistake on the part of the authorities. This total mismatch, that too at midnight could have been fatal. Riyadh airport authorities ought to have warned the pilots that there was a mismatch between what was shown in the chart and the actual ground marking.”

This Jet Airways pilot said that under the changed rules, pilots were now expected to report on duty only 75 minutes in advance as opposed to 90 minutes only a few months ago. This, he said, took away 15 additional valuable minutes from the pilots to go through the 80-100 pages of checklist.

“These pages are sacrosanct and can come to haunt you if you have ignored any important bit from them in the event of a mishap. So, on this occasion, the pilots were not completely at fault since they followed the chart given to them in their checklist,” he added.

NOTAM given to the two pilots on 3 August

Another pilot said, “Delhi or Mumbai airport charts for aircraft in air clearly writes a caution, “‘Identify Safdarjung/Juhu airport before landing. You know why? That’s because it’s possible to mistake them for main runways of Delhi and Mumbai. Riyadh is a case where all those whose responsibility it was to aid and assist the pilots for a safe flight acted to mislead and disorientate them at midnight.”

Questionable role of Saudi ATC

Jet Airways pilots are incensed by the questionable role of the Air Traffic Control at Riyadh airport. One pilot Captain Vikas Sharma (name changed to protect his identity) told Janta Ka Reporter that the ATC had the knowledge on the movement of every flight at the airport through ground radar system. He wondered how, on this occasion, they realised that the flight was about to take off from the taxiway only after it had gained the speed of 110 knots.

“The ATC ought to have been alerted the moment it noticed the Riyadh-Mumbai Jet Airways Boeing B737, VTJFS aircraft readying for a take off on the taxiway. Its call for RT(Reject Take Off) came very late since it was capable of changing the flight’s course to the main runway very early, but it failed to do so. Instead of pulling up our pilot colleagues, why no action is being taken against the ATC officials on duty and those responsible for preparing a wrong chart? My question is simple. How could ATC clear the aircraft for takeoff when it was not on designated runway” Capt Sharma asked.

The DGCA too is being blamed for its knee-jerk reaction instead of attempting to speak to the pilots concerned to understand the depth of the problem primarily to ensure that such mishaps are not repeated in future.

Capt Sharma says, “Blaming pilots at midnight with faulty charts is the most dangerous way to brush away a bigger malaise in the system.”

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