By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The pilots of a Pakistan airliner that crashed last month, killing 97, were distracted and preoccupied as they talked about the coronavirus pandemic while preparing for an initial failed landing bid, the country’s aviation minister said on Wednesday.
The Airbus A320 <AIR.PA> of national carrier Pakistan International Airlines crashed on May 22 in the southern city of Karachi, killing all but two of those aboard as it came down a kilometre (0.6 mile) short of the runway on its second attempt.
The aircraft had landed on its engines on the first attempt, before taking off again, the minister, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, told parliament as he presented an initial report on the disaster.
The flight data recorder showed the landing gear was lowered at 10 nautical miles, Khan said, but then raised again 5 nautical miles from the runway, which he described as “beyond comprehension”.
The aircraft was “100 percent fit to fly” and there was no technical fault, he said, but added that the pilots were not “focused” because of the pandemic.
“The discussion throughout was about corona,” Khan said, referring to exchanges between the pilot and co-pilot he said he had listened to on the cockpit voice recorder.
“Corona was dominant over their mind. Their family was affected (by the virus).”
The report, reviewed by Reuters, did not spell out the pilots’ conversation on the virus, but said they did not follow set protocols.
“Several warnings and alerts such as over-speed, landing gear not down and ground proximity alerts, were disregarded,” it added. “The landing was undertaken with landing gear retracted. The aircraft touched the runway surface on its engines.”
Both the pilots and officials at air traffic control did not follow set procedures, Khan said.
“The captain and the co-pilot were experienced and medically fit,” the minister said.
Khan added that the data showed flight PK8303 from the eastern city of Lahore was at an altitude of just 7,220 feet (2,200 m) when 10 miles (16 km) from the runway, although it should have been at 2,500 feet (762 m).
Air traffic control drew the pilot’s attention to the irregularity, and advised against landing, instead urging a go-around, Khan said.
“When they were in landing position, they were warned by the controllers, but he said, ‘I’ll manage’… and then they started discussing corona again.”
He said the inquiry report revealed the pilot had mentioned no technical fault during the final approach.
“The last words from the pilot were, ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God,'” Khan added.
Pakistan has recorded 188,926 infections and 3,755 deaths in the virus pandemic, with a big spike in reported cases over the last month.
For an interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7
(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Additional Reporting by Gibran Peshimam and Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi, Tim Hepher in Paris and Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)