A 15-hour-long Air India flight from New Delhi to New York battled bad weather and multiple systems failure on September 11 before landing at Newark airport in New Jersey instead of John F Kennedy International airport, according to officials and reports that on Monday detailed tense moments following a rare combination of electronic malfunction.
According to NDTV, which first reported the news, the flight involved was AI-101, and had 370 people on board.
“Auto land is not available. We have multiple instrument failure,” one of the pilots was heard telling air traffic controllers at JFK, according to audio files available on LiveATC.net, a website that archives ATC radio transmissions.
The pilots went on to inform ATC that the issue was “with the ILS”, referring to the Instrument Landing Cluster which is responsible for the precise lining up and descent of an aircraft onto a runway – by far the most challenging part of a flight.
The ILS becomes more crucial in bad weather conditions such as the ones faced by the pilots of AI-101, when they could not visually estimate an approach because of heavy cloud cover.
The aircraft was a nine-year-old Boeing 777-300, according to NDTV. A Boeing spokesperson did not respond to requests for a comment.
“The weather was bad at New York airport and due to the snag, radar was not visible in the cockpit. The pilot had to carry out landing without the help of radar and since weather was bad in New York, the aircraft was diverted to Newark,” an Air India spokesperson told Hindustan Times.
A former Air India pilot suggested the predicament – where crucial equipment malfunction — was potentially dangerous. “For visual landing, a pilot has to be able to see the runway at least form 1.5-2 km away. Visual landing is common in good weather. It is not dangerous if the pilot is equipped (with all instruments) but multiple equipment failure should be probed,” said VK Kukar.
At one point during their flight-ATC communications, as posted on LiveATC.net, one of the pilots was heard telling the air traffic controller that there are “lots of issues” and asks if there are other “sectors” with better visibility. They eventually zeroed in on Newark. “I was going to try the VNAV approach in Newark if the ceiling is better than JFK,” the pilot was heard telling the controller. A “better ceiling” refers to the height of the clouds below which the aircraft could be flown so that the pilots could see the runway.
But before they could do this, the pilots detailed to the controller the extent of the malfunction. “Basically, we’ve got a single source radio altimeter, we have a Traffic Collision and Avoidance System failure,” radioed in the captain, whom NDTV identified as Rustom Palia. “No auto-land, no windshear systems, (no) Auto Speed Brake and the Auxillary Power Unit is unserviceable as well,” he added. Too add to that, they were running low on fuel. “We are getting little low on the fuel as well. We are burning a lot of fuel,” the captain told the controller.
There are normally multiple altimeters and the traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) is regarded as one of the most crucial pieces of equipment since it automatically detects and averts collisions between aircraft.
In the end, the flight landed safely at Newark, where emergency crews had been put on stand-by, according to the recording.
“The pilot did a good job by diverting the flight and landing safely,” said an official of the Director General of Civil Aviation, asking not to be named. He confirmed that the aviation regulator had begun an investigation. “Our probe will revolve on technical glitches”.
The aircraft and the pilots returned to India a day after the incident.