Crisis aboard Air India flight 101: Deftness of two pilots in preventing an almost-inevitable catastrophe should be celebrated

On 15 January, 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) landed his USAir 320 safely on the Hudson River and saved everyone. He became an instant hero. India recently had its own Sully in two pilots but because they managed to bring her home safely and not crash the flight. It does not get acknowledged and we do not celebrate great effort when under fire.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

Air India Captain Rustom Palia and Captain Sushant Singh could have been discussing their golf handicap over tea and crumpets with more emotion in this almost 20-minute tape as they struggled with instruments that died on them. Not a sign of nerves as their systems fell apart. These Air India captains brought in a Boeing 777-300 with 370 passengers on board crippled with multiple instrumentation failures into Newark and managed to do it with grace, incredible ‘goose bump’ level calm when all hell was breaking loose in the flight deck.

Go listen to the transcript on YouTube and hear it for yourselves.

Think of it. It is 11 September, a day where aviation in New York especially would be on high alert. Recall 17 years ago. Air India 101 calls in normal for approach onto Runway 4R and there is nothing wrong. Yet. Captain Cool then discovers he is unable to latch onto the localizer which helps him get onto the glide slope and is integral to the Instrument Landing System that safely guides an aircraft in on an invisible chute, so to speak. The commander decides to abort approach and go around.

Now, the fun truly starts. As instrument after instrument collapses on him he cannot use his traffic alert and collision avoidance system, he discovers the plane will not connect to the ILS and the weather is closing in. With tremendous equanimity, he considers his options. Air Traffic Control feeds him real time data and he considers in quick succession, Stewart Airport, the military field at Bradley, the option at Boston is offered by ATC and AI 101 has now vectored itself with only one operational radio and unsure where to land. A non-precision approach is considered then aborted.

If this is not bad enough the captain chattily informs ATC he is running out of fuel, has a weather minima that is creating a low ceiling and his conversation with ATC is almost comical with the latter’s admiration reflected in the apology that they cannot do more to help the captain. Unruffled, these two incredible pilots now find they have lost their navigation systems, their autoland, their auto brakes, they have no ILS, just one itty-bitty radio.

So they decide without the slightest sense of panic or stress to bring in 370 souls on an LNAV/VNAV approach which is essentially using barometric altimeters and ground radio equipment to compute a descent path and adding the support of vertical guidance to a non-precision approach.

Think of you and a carload of the family in the vehicle with fog coming in and suddenly your brakes go mush, the steering wheel will not respond the curving mountain road, the engine is on full power but the panel in front of you has died on you. Now put that car in the air at 6,000 feet.

Multiple failures are rare. The fact that these two pilots were able to handle it is exceptional. Even the loss of one instrument at a crucial take off or landing juncture is underscored by how disorienting it can be. On 1 January, 1978 an Air India 747 bound for Dubai took off and crashed off Bandra with 213 people on board. The cockpit voice recorder went this way in its last few seconds.

Arre yaar…

My instrument has toppled.

So has mine.

No, but go by this captain.

Go by what……

The toppled instrument was the Attitude Director Indicator or Artificial Horizon and the ‘go by this’ was the flight engineer pointing to the standby ADI. The aircraft (AI 855) had literally flown into the sea.

So technicals aside why do we have to come to learn of such superb flying skills from a possible ham operator monitoring the ATC conversations? Why is Air India not proudly displaying these men at a media conference for their flawless performance under the most trying circumstances?

There is this tendency we have to protect ourselves from criticism. Instead of saying, okay this deserves public attention we will go negative and say, let’s not say anything lest the blame falls on engineering and maintenance.

Aircraft fly on Go items lists and Minimum Equipment Lists every day …with systems that are not working.

The story here is that a major crisis on board was handled professionally and with great control.

A nation should salute these two men not minimise their effort.

Then find out what happened to the plane.


Updated Date: Sep 18, 2018 13:40 PM

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