Pilots of fatal flight PIA PK8303 distracted by coronavirus

Aasif Azaan

A month after the crash of PIA flight PK8303, a preliminary investigation report was released by the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan. Presenting the early findings, the authorities pointed at the negligence of the pilots and the lack of adequate reaction from the air traffic controllers.

On May 22, 2020, Pakistan International Airlines flight PK8303 crashed just outside the Karachi Airport, Pakistan. Of the 99 people (89 passengers and eight crew) onboard the Airbus A320, two passengers survived the accident. Eleven people were injured on the ground.

Federal Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan presented the first results of the CAA investigation into the crash to the Parliament on June 22, 2020. “According to the initial investigative report, the pilot and the controller both did not adopt the proper procedure,” said the minister. “On one side, the pilot ignored the controller’s advice, and on the other side, the controller did not tell the pilot about the damage to his engines after they scraped the runway.”

It appears that the flight crew was distracted throughout the landing phase. “The discussion throughout was about corona, they had the virus in mind: their families were affected,” said the minister, based on data extracted from the Cockpit Voice Recorder by the French Bureau of Investigation and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA). At the time of the crash, the bar of 50,000 coronavirus COVID-19 cases in Pakistan had been reached.

The recordings also confirmed that the Karachi air traffic control warned the flight crew three times that their altitude was too high during the approach, to which the pilot responded by saying that he would “manage.”

“Several warnings and alerts such as over-speed, landing gear not down and ground proximity alerts, were disregarded,” the report states. “The landing was undertaken with the landing gear retracted. The aircraft touched the runway surface on its engines.” CCTV footage confirmed that the A320 hit the runway 25L three times, after which the pilot chose to go around. Damages to both engine nacelles were found on the wreckage. 

Despite witnessing the “scrubbing of engines with the runway”, air traffic controllers did not communicate the issue to the flight crew. The pilots aborted the landing and decided to carry out a go-around. They deployed the landing gear, which upon inspection of the wreckage showed no sign of malfunction, and the Ram Air Turbine to power essential systems. But shortly after, each engine failed one after the other, and the aircraft crashed about 1,340 meters (4,400 feet) short from runway 25L.

In addition to the crash investigation, the Minister revealed the results of a separate investigation that was launched in February 2019, regarding the licenses of Pakistani pilots. The CAA found that 262 out of 860 active pilots in the country had not sat the pilot exams themselves. In total, 40% of pilots, including inactive ones, held “fake” licenses. The preliminary report into PK8303 crash states that both “captain and first officer were adequately qualified and experienced to undertake the said flight”, but their records and documents are currently under scrutiny.

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