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Commander Gennady Cherapanov seemed relaxed and in control as he

guided the IL-76 into the descent to Delhi over the dusty cotton and
mustard fields of western Haryana. In 15 minutes, the chartered flight
would be on the tarmac at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. And
in an hour, the 29 Kyrgyzstani shoppers on board could be on Janpath.
"Good evening," the pilot greeted air-traffic control (ATC) as flight KZA
1907 - owned by Kazakhstan Airlines but chartered by a group of Kyrgyz made contact with Delhi, informing the tower that he was coming down
from 23,000 ft to 18,000 ft. The controller, V.K. Dutta, who was recently
promoted as senior aerodrome officer, knew from his schedules that the
aircraft was due to land in Delhi.
Dutta cleared the descent to 15,000 ft. Cherapanov confirmed that and
cruised along at that height - or so Dutta thought. In the villages
surrounding Charkhi Dadri in the heart of Haryana, everything was quiet
on the evening of November 12. The last firecrackers of Diwali had been
exhausted. Routine was back. It was Tuesday. Many were preparing to
adjust their watches to 6:45 p.m., when the scrupulously punctual Saudi
Airways flight SVA 763 flew overhead thrice a week. It was on time that
evening too.
On board the Saudi Airways jumbo jet, carrying fitters, mechanics, odd
jobbers chasing money and dreams, captain A.L. Shbaly was beginning his
ascent. At 10,000 ft he spoke into his radio, letting the ATC Delhi know his
height. "Cleared for 14,000," Dutta replied. The 747 continued to climb. At
14,000 ft Shbaly asked the ATC for clearance to go higher. Dutta asked
him to stand by for clearance for further ascent. But did he?

The impact of the two colliding aircraft flying at 500 kmph left wreckage and bodies strewn over a
10-sq km areaThat is unclear. What is clear is that Cherapanov was told that

there was a Boeing coming his way. "Maintain 150, identified traffic 12
o'clock." Dutta warned Cherapanov. What that meant was that the Jumbo
was coming straight at the Kazakh plane. Flight SVA 763 was just about 25
km away from the Kazakh aircraft. Dutta also asked him to report if he
sighted the Boeing. Even if he did see it, Cherapanov didn't get back to
Dutta.
As Dutta watched his radar, he saw the two blips converge. He wasn't
overly concerned because that could mean one aircraft was just flying
over the other. He had seen blips merge and separate on his outdated
primary radar in the past. Not this time. To Dutta's horror, the blips
converged and disappeared.
Evidence in the wreckage indicated that the deadly collision was not head-on Sitting

on a road
in rural Haryana, retired subedar Mahendra Singh saw something far more
awesome. "I saw this fireball, like a giant burst of gas on fire," says an

awed Singh. Others living around the


town of Charkhi Dadri, 80 km northwest
of Delhi, saw those flames too. They
say they lit up a sky rapidly fading to
dusk. They heard a sound fiercer than
thunder. It was nothing like they had
ever witnessed.
In the air, a US aircraft ferrying supplies
to the embassy in Delhi spotted two
streaks of flame descending rapidly
downwards. But even they did not
catch the moment. Those who
witnessed that fraction of a second, lost
somewhere between 6:41 p.m. and
6:42 p.m. on November 12, did not live
beyond it.
Tonnes of flaming steel hit the ground
seconds after the 747 hit the underside
of the IL-76. There was evidence in the
wreckage to show that the collision
wasn't head-on: the windshield of the
descending Kazakh aircraft was almost
intact.

CRASH FACTS
Height at collision: Around
14,500 ft above sea level.
Speed at impact: 500 km per
hour. Weight of wreckage: Over
500 tonnes. Equal to 600 Maruti
cars raining down from the sky.
Radius of debris: Five km.
Distance separating debris of
the two aircraft was 7 km. Total
killed: 351 (312 aboard the
Saudi Airways Boeing 747 and
39 in the Kazakhstan Airlines IL76) Condition of bodies: 257
largely intact. 62 charred
beyond recognition. 32
completely mutilated.
Nationalities of dead: Indians
231, Saudis 18, Nepalese 9,
Pakistanis 3, Americans 2,
British 1 and Bangladeshi 1.
Unidentified: 86. State-wise
breakup of Indians killed: Uttar
Pradesh 80, Bihar 48, Rajasthan
46, Delhi 15, Kerala 13, Jammu
and Kashmir 9, Punjab 7, Andhra
Pradesh 3, Maharashtra 3,
Haryana 2, Assam 2, Madhya
Pradesh 2, West Bengal 1.

The windshield may have survived, but none of the passengers in either
plane could escape annihilation. When two aircraft hurtling at 500 km per
hour slam into each other, the passengers and crew don't have much of a
chance - the impact is 700 times that of a powerful car crash.
In a fraction of a second, the thunderous collision decompressed the cabin
and starved passengers of oxygen. Their liver and spleen were smashed
to pulp and their hearts burst on slamming against the rib-cage at 500 km
per hour. Death followed almost instantaneously - leaving little time to
feel pain or realise they were dying.
More than 500 tonnes of wreckage lay scattered over a 7-km stretch of
farmland; 351 bodies - and parts of them littered the fields. The fuselage
of the Boeing 747 burned into the night. The mid-air collision revealed
gaping holes in India's air-safety systems, gaps that may have caused the
third-worst tragedy in aviation history.
Indian skies were perilously close to another head-on collision between
aircraft just four hours before. INDIA TODAY has learnt that in the same
area above Delhi a similar collision was averted when the pilots of an AN32 and an Avro, both Indian Air Force planes, realised after listening to
radio communication that they had both been given clearances to

approach at almost the same level at the same time. "We avoided the
mishap by a hair's breadth," says a crew member of the AN-32.
Click here to EnlargeBut nothing on the transcripts of the last
conversations the pilots of the two ill-fated planes had with ATC revealed
any problem. "The transcript clearly shows that both the pilots know that
they were approaching each other," says Civil Aviation Secretary Yogesh
Chandra. "It is not air traffic control's fault."
So was Commander Cherapanov really flying at 15,000 ft, the height he
confirmed to ATC? With the equipment ATC has at present, there is no way
of checking an aircraft's altitude. Says
Director General of Civil Aviation H.S. Khola:
"We have simply to take the pilot's word for it." Moreover, the altimeter,
which gives height readings, could have been faulty in either plane.
Officials also say that there may have been a language problem between
the crew on the IL-76 and the ATC. The Kazakh crew, they said, were not
very conversant in English and could have misunderstood some of the
instructions. A Kazakh official scoffs at the suggestion: "How come they
understand English everywhere else they go?" The transcript of the
communication between the ATC and the Kazakh pilot bear that out.
But while the Government seems bent on giving the airport authorities a
clean chit, and pin the blame on the Kazakh pilot (data is being collected
on the poor safety record of Kazakh airliners to bolster the case), it is clear
that an accident of such magnitude could occur only after a series of
lapses.
The first of these lapses took place when Captain Shbaly was asked to
stand by for further instructions if he wanted to continue his ascent. It
would be the last time the two would talk. He did not follow the rules; he
did not repeat the ATC's instructions in acknowledgement. And the ATC
said nothing further.
According to aviation norms Dutta should have repeated the instructions
and asked Shbaly to acknowledge them. It isn't clear if the 747 continued
to gain altitude without clearance. The obsolete primary radars at IGIA's
ATC, which show only lateral distance without showing vertical separation,
didn't allow the ATC to check.
It appears then that some simple obedience of the rule book by both the
pilot and the Delhi tower might have avoided the tragedy. It also seems
clear that one of the planes did not keep to the level given.
The complete picture will emerge only once the flight-data recorders of
the two aircraft are decoded. But the black boxes will not tell how
outdated equipment could be jeopardising air travel. Air traffic in India
isn't going to lessen. The pressure of more flights is already telling on

Indian airports. Delhi airport's aging air-traffic infrastructure is supposed


to optimally handle 12 flights an hour.
But the actual figure is more than 20, posing serious risks. V.K. Chandna,
director, air safety, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), says the
Haryana disaster was "a freak accident, but not totally impossible because
of ever-increasing air traffic." It's vital then, to ensure that the margins for
error are curtailed.
So how do we make the skies a safer place? Bring in new technology;
revamp ATCs; install new sensors, both in planes and in airports; and
improve pilot training.
A gory end to a journey that was to take most of them to a lucrative joband a future Control

towers must be the first beneficiaries so that they receive sophisticated


equipment (standard in many countries) that allows controllers to find out
the height of an aircraft. Right now, all that guides controllers are blips on
a screen. If two blips overlap, they have no way of knowing how far apart
the planes actually are.
State-of-the-art equipment from the American electronics company
Raytheon is being tested and is scheduled to come on stream in Delhi and
Mumbai airports by early 1997, officials claim. "Our anxiety to upgrade it
does not imply that the existing ATC system is outdated or inadequate,"
says Ranjan Chatterjee, chairman of the Airports Authority of India.
The ATCs all over the country can't keep pace with technological change in
modern aircraft. From June 1, 1996, the DGCA made it compulsory for all
commercial aircraft to have a mode C transponder. That means that if
there's an obstacle in the flight path, the instrument will alert the pilot. It
gives a reading of altitude, which is then transmitted to the ATC.
But the transponders are still useless in India
because they need special radars that can
receive their signals. And no Indian tower can do that. Guwahati, Delhi,
Mumbai and Trivandrum were supposed to have these compatible radars
by June 1, but they're nowhere in sight. The Saudi 747 had a Mode C
transponder but obviously it was useless.
So right now, towers in India have no way of knowing a plane's altitudeexcept taking a pilot's word for it. And how dangerous that can be has
become evident. Either of the two pilots-or both-could have got their
altitudes wrong over Haryana.
It also seems clear that technology change must be used to stop
accidents, not used as a knee-jerk reaction after one. It was only after a
crash in Ahmedabad on October 19, 1988, that Indian airports got
instrument-landing systems. The same thing happened in Imphal. In
Aurangabad the airstrip was widened only after a crash.

The Government insists safety is a key concern. Two months ago, a


committee headed by an air marshal was set up to review current safety
standards. "We are observing international standards of air safety," says
Civil Aviation Minister C.M. Ibrahim. That is perhaps stretching the truth.
But if ATC systems are upgraded, the skies would certainly be safer. For
one, the new system would reduce verbal communication between pilots
and the tower. Officials admit that a language problem between ATCs and
foreign pilots is a problem area; the communication gaps imperil air
safety.
The disaster revealed India's unpreparedness in search-and-rescue operations But

there's a
major impediment to upgrading ATC systems: money. "Upgrading needs
hell of a lot of money," says Khola. "And that is a problem." However, he
insists after Delhi and Mumbai, traffic control systems in other airports will
be modernised.
In the future, civil aviation officials hope to introduce a satellite-based
communication and navigational surveillance air-traffic-management
system. A ministry project envisages the dismantling of ground-based ATC
systems by 2010. But with the failure to quickly replace today's old
systems, this seems wishful thinking. And this technological time lag,
warns one aviation expert in Delhi, is at the cost of air safety.
When that happens, tragedies like the Saudi-Kazakh
crash will be difficult to prevent. Whatever the
reasons for the crash, it seems clear that a
technologically superior tower in Delhi could have
warned Commander Cherapanov and Captain Shbaly
of impending doom. Safety can no longer be neglected. As one
commercial airline pilot, who flies that narrow Hissar-Delhi corridor
frequently, says, "If safety is too expensive, try an accident."

Accidents are
the price of
obsolete
technology.