It is said that the most dangerous part of an airline flight is the drive to the airport and crossing the road to the terminal. The flight is the safest part. In the United States, 44000 flights take off and land daily, safely. Worldwide, over 102000 flights take off and land every day. Years go by before an untoward incident takes place in the western world where aircraft maintenance and pilot training is closely monitored. The pilots are trained and honed to perfection and the planes have so much built-in redundancy that every critical part is in triplicate. The pilots are trained for all possible emergencies and retrained after certain proscribed time periods. This retraining and testing is done mostly on simulators.

Flying a plane is not difficult. A Boeing 777 pilot, on an intercontinental flight, probably flies the plane for a couple of minutes, at the take off and the flare of the plane for landing. Everything else has been programmed into the computer. The plane essentially flies itself. The engine technology is so advanced that an engine failure takes place, on the average, once every 100,000 flying hours. The critical moment for engine reliability is the take off. Even so, should an engine fail, the other engine is strong enough to take the plane off by itself.

So why, should an A320 aircraft with an excellent safety record and state-of-the-art computer systems, crash in fine weather and in broad daylight? The pilot was experienced with a reported 24 years of experience. So would have been the co-pilot. Was there a degree of complacency? Why was the plane at 3000 feet, where the pilot stated that he was “comfortable”, when the pattern altitude should have been 1600 feet AGL? Did he have to descend too fast and somehow the computer sensed that the parameters were not right for lowering the landing gear? But in the ATC conversation, the landing gear alarm could be heard. Why was the landing gear not lowered? Was it stuck? Then why did the pilots land the plane and suddenly realise that they had landed on the engines rather than on the wheels? If so, then why did they not let the plane slide to a stop? Planes are designed to survive a crash landing with the landing gear retracted. In all probability, most of the passengers would have survived. But to land on the engines and then attempt to take off and go around, on the assumption that the engines would function despite the damage they had been subjected to, is the question that needs to be addressed.

The worst airline accident in history took place on the island of Tenerife when a KLM 747 on a take-off run, collided with a PAN AM 747 which had not yet cleared the runway. It was a horrific collision and KLM immediately sought advice from their ace test pilot, only to discover that it was he who was piloting the stricken plane. He was in a hurry because his time for flying that day was running out and if he did not take off immediately, another pilot would have to be brought in to fly the plane. It was foggy and he did not see the PAN AM plane till it was too late. In PIA’s AirBus crash in Nepal, the pilot had placed the airport chart to one side of the controls. He misread the chart and flew into a mountain. It is now mandatory to have the landing chart right in front of the pilot.

It is usually not one incident that leads to an air crash, but a series of decisions coupled with a technical malfunction that compound the issues and lead to disaster. What happened on PIA 8303 will be ascertained by the investigators from France and PIA’s own committee. But, it is almost unheard of for a modern airliner to crash so disastrously in broad daylight and in perfect weather. If the landing gear was not coming down, then why did the pilot try to take off again knowing that he would have to bring the plane down again? All signs point to the fact that it had something to do with the landing gear, they were surprised by the engines bearing the brunt of the landing and in panic, tried to take off again. The engines had been damaged, the plane stalled and the crash resulted.

Pilots know the importance of eating regularly while in flight in order to maintain their sugar level. Was the pilot fasting? Was his sugar level low, with having had nothing to eat for 11 hours? What is PIA’s SOP for pilots in this regard? We have to recall that the AirBlue pilot who crashed in the Margalla Hills had been praying all night prior to the flight.

We are hearing good things about PIA and its return to profitability. The management deserves credit for that. But there are also horror stories about drunken pilots, pilots falling asleep in the cockpit, pilots with fake credentials. Unless these human resource issues are brought to the standards of the Pakistan Air Force, if possible, and the wheat is sifted from the chaff as far as the crew is concerned, no amount of efficient management is going to suffice. This accident may not be attributed to the Air Marshal, but if the pilots are not properly trained, vetted and cockpit discipline improved, and quickly, such tragic incidents would be a distinct possibility. God forbid, if pilot issues are not resolved and another incident happens, heads will definitely roll.