The pilots of a Pakistan airliner that crashed last month, killing 97 people aboard, were preoccupied and distracted by the coronavirus pandemic as they chatted about the bug — trying to land with the wheels still up on their first attempt, according to an initial official report about the disaster.
The Pakistan International Airlines jet slammed into a residential area near Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on May 22, just days after the country lifted coronavirus restrictions and resumed domestic flights ahead of a major Muslim holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Only two people survived the crash of the Airbus A320, which was carrying 91 passengers and eight crew members. A 13-year-old neighborhood girl was critically injured and later died in a hospital.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s aviation minister blamed “human error” by the cockpit crew as well as air traffic controllers who saw the plane’s two engines scrape the runway with a shower of sparks, but did not tell the pilots.
Security stand beside the site where a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in Karachi, Pakistan.ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images
Investigators determined that the plane was at more than twice the correct altitude when it first approached the runway, the report said.
The badly damaged engines failed as the pilots attempted a second landing, according to the findings.
“The pilot as well as the controller didn’t follow the standard rules,” Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said as he announced the findings in parliament.
He said the captain — who had been talking about the pandemic with the first officer — ignored instructions from the controller during the landing attempt.
A man walks near where a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in Karachi, Pakistan.RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Im
“The pilot and co-pilot were not focused and throughout they were having a conversation about coronavirus,” Khan said.
According to the voice recorder, the pilots had discussed the coronavirus — which apparently had affected their families — throughout the flight, the report found.
The crash occurred as the crew tried to land a second time and the traffic controller told the pilot three times that the aircraft was too low to land but he refused to listen, saying he would manage, Khan said.
Khan told reporters later that when the plane was making an approach for a second landing, it lacked enough power, but the pilots “started discussing corona again.”
Just minutes before the crash, the pilot declared an emergency and stated that both engines had failed, Khan said.
“The last words from the pilot were, ‘Oh God! Oh God! Oh God,’” he added.
Khan said the plane “had no technical fault” before the crash and that the extremely experienced pilots were healthy — but “due to overconfidence and lack of focus,” the tragedy took place.
The minister also cited a troubling review of pilot credentials, saying an investigation last year found that 262 of Pakistan’s 860 active pilots had fake licenses or had cheated on exams — including an unspecified number of PIA pilots.
PIA will be grounding nearly 150 of its 426 pilots amid an inquiry that they hold “dubious” licenses, a company spokesman said.
Qasim Qadim, a spokesman for the Pakistan Airline Pilots Association, called the accident findings “mind-boggling,” Agence France-Presse reported.
“How could it happen? It just baffles me,” he said. “The greatest pilots with the best records have made mistakes. Humans make mistakes.”
The report did not name the pilots, but a senior airline official told AFP the captain was Sajjad Gul, who joined PIA 25 years ago and had accumulated 17,000 hours of flying experience, including 4,500 hours on A320s.
Candles are lit in Karachi, Pakistan, during a vigil for the victims of the Pakistan International Airlines plane crash.ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images
The secretary of the Pakistan Airline Pilots’ Association told Reuters that pilots were expected to not be distracted during crucial procedures such as landing, but that other factors also should be probed for the complete report.
“It was pointed out the pilots were busy talking about corona, and that they may have overlooked a few things,” he said, but other factors were involved, including “not being provided proper support from air traffic control.”
A full report is expected to be released at the end of the year.
With Post wires