Just why and how did PIA Flight 8303 crash in Karachi? We will know when the official probe reveals it. Initial findings point towards a series of pilot errors. The plane was not on its glide path but the captain, in his own words, was comfortable. The airspeed at touchdown was way beyond permissible limits. To top this, either his landing gear wasn’t down, or not locked in place, because Flight 8303’s engines scraped the runway asphalt, which probably caused enough damage to disable both engines during the go-round and the plane was lost.
I have heard the cockpit-ATC conversation too many times to not notice that there was a cultural angle to the crash. The shared culture of respecting the elders, just because they are senior in age and experience. The hierarchy, declared and undeclared, not only hampers growth and innovation but also leads to disasters.
I am not blaming the plane crash only on this or the captain but I suspect this played a role. It wasn't the pilot overruling anyone, it’s the others not speaking up. Respect, you see.
Here is the transcript since approach:
Pilot: We are comfortable... we can make it inshallah (This is when he has not stabilised, he is way high and has to descend too quickly because the flight is close to the airport)
Pilot: Sir, we are comfortable now and we are out of (altitude) 3500 (feet) for 3000, established ILS 25L (Still too high so he has to put the nose down to descend and this is adding to air speed)
ATC: Copy that. Turn left heading 180 (degrees)
Pilot: Sir, we are established on ILS 25L
ATC: Sir, you are 5 miles from touchdown, re-cleared passing 3000 for ILS
ATC: Pakistan 8303 clear to land on ILS 25L
Pilot: Roger Pakistan 8303
(This is when either ATC or the First Officer should have enforced a go-round, saying landing is too dangerous but... they attempt any way, and in this commotion of establishing on ILS 25L glide path, the pilots forget to drop the landing gear. Why forget? Because there is no mention of any technical glitch. No talk of landing on belly until after the botched attempt to land. There are warning chimes and we can assume visual alerts on the panel as well)
(TOUCH AND GO)
Pilot: Pakistan 8303 going around
ATC: Report reaching altitude 3500 feet
Pilot: Pakistan 8303, we would like to come again for ILS 25L (engine revving in the background, loud warning chimes heard)
ATC: Roger, turn left heading 110, climb 3000
Pilot: Left heading confirm
ATC: Affirm, left heading 110, climb 3000
Pilot: 110, climb 3000, Pakistan 8303
ATC: 8303, you are dumping altitude 2000
Pilot: Sir, we have uh…. Just give me 2000
ATC: Roger, maintain 2000
Pilot: Sir, copied sir, we are maintaining ... trying to maintain
ATC: Pakistan 8303, Approach.
Pilot: Ji, sir
ATC: Uh, appear to be turning left.
Pilot: Uh, we are proceeding direct, sir, we have lost engine.
ATC: Confirm you are carrying out belly landing?
ATC: ... runway available to land at 25
Pilot: Mayday, mayday, mayday, Pakistan 830... 3.
ATC: Pakistan 8303, roger sir, both runways available to land.
When you hear the recordings, you can’t but notice the tone of reverence in the ATC tower officer’s voice for a senior, experienced pilot, the captain of the Lahore-Karachi flight. He warns Captain Sajjad Gul at least thrice and the captain ignores, according to the data available, all three. This is not usual in aviation. Friendly banter is acceptable, but not following standard operating procedure is serious offence. The ATC is not firm in informing the cockpit of not following height and speed norms. The captain insists he is comfortable while being way above the stipulated height and speed; the officer at the control tower does not tell the captain that he is not. There are 98 other souls on the flight. The captain is in command and he should be, but when ATC could hear the warning chimes, one wonders why the officer on ground did not ask them to go round before the first attempt! This would have allowed the officer in the control tower to take a good look at the plane from outside. But yak na shud, do shud. Trouble never comes alone. The mistakes are compounding.
Notice the steep descent in a short span after an uneventful flight.
It takes two pilots to fly a commercial jetliner for a reason. The second pilot or first officer is equally skilled and trained, even if he/she has not clocked the same flying hours. In the entire cockpit-control tower conversation, you hear only a faint “Ji, Sir” from him. The flight was way above the required height, the landing speed was too hot, the warning chimes, the retracted landing gear and a comfortable captain. If the captain wasn’t seeing the instrument panel and hearing the beeps, why did First Officer Usman Azam allow the first landing itself? Was it because of the respect one must have for the senior/elder? If the boss is saying he’s comfortable, then how can I argue? The flight was aligned for landing, but at what angle did the captain think he can land? From the available data and the recordings, it’s clear the first officer went ahead with the captain’s confidence. The whole point of having another equally skilled pilot in the cockpit is that in case one takes a wrong step, the other can make it right. First Officer Azam is dead. Captain Gul is dead. They are not here to answer the queries. The questions will remain unanswered. The cockpit voice recorder will reveal the verbal exchange but no one will ever know what was going on in their minds.
The captain’s family confirmed that he was fasting, observing roza. This means not even water during the day. Commercial airlines do not allow pilots to fly if they are fasting. So why was he allowed to captain a passenger plane? Was it seniority? Was it experience? Was it because he’s so experienced he can fly a plane in sleep? We do not know if Captain Sajjad Gul had any associated medical conditions like diabetes, but fasting can bring down sugar levels drastically. We do know that low sugar level can affect decision-making, blurred vision and trigger severe anxiety. Did the captain’s roza cost 99 families their Eid? We will know when the investigation is complete.
This is not about the crash. This is about our societies. We have many disasters around us caused by this unquestioned respect culture. A number of social evils like dowry, infanticide, caste discrimination, religious bigotry, unwanted marriages, unwanted babies too, happen because elders impose their decisions on the younger generation who know better, but cannot say no to the elders. We have a respect culture but there’s something that has rotten over the years. It starts early, you know, when you are passionate about history but you have to go to Kota to mug physics because papa ka sapna hai. And then we hear young talents hanging from ceiling fans because they just didn’t want to do engineering. We should respect our elders and seniors, but not when they are visibly wrong. We can prevent many emotional, financial, material disasters and even lives, by simply standing up to a wrong. No matter who commits it.