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'Can't blame the pilot when safety infrastructure not in place'

By Vicky Nanjappa
May 23, 2010 15:13 IST
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Rolan Salian, a former aeronautical engineer with Air India, hails from Udupi near Mangalore. His association with the Mangalore airport dates back to 30 years.

"Why do we always have this tendency of carrying out reactive maintenance instead of proactive maintenance," he asks in the wake of the tragic crash of an Air India flight near Mangalore airport on Saturday morning, which left 158 people dead.

In a conversation with, he explains why the Mangalore airport needs an extended metallic runway and why it is taking the search team so long to locate the black box.

Metallic runway 

"Since the 1980s, we have been making several suggestions about improving the Mangalore airport. We had suggested that until more infrastructural facilities were provided, the airport should be used only for the landing of light aircraft.

"One suggestion that we continue to make even today to the authorities is about the construction of an extended metallic runway. Since Mangalore airport has a table top runway, it is essential to have an extended metallic runway, the kind one would find on a warship. This runway extension should have been constructed with supporting pillars. Such an extension will help in smooth take-offs and even during emergencies. At the Mangalore airport, the runway ends at one point and there is a huge gorge after that, where the plane will fall if there is a mistake in landing. An extension will help the plane come to a standstill on such a runway.

"Such a runway will cost the government nearly Rs 200 crore. However, the authorities have not heeded our suggestion. It is very unfortunate that the pilot is blamed every time for a mishap. How can you blame the pilot when the basic infrastructure pertaining to safety is not provided?

The black box

A black box is designed in such a manner that it keeps working even if it is immersed 1,000 feet under water. In this case, it has fallen to the ground, but it can survive any sort of impact. It is water, fire and pressure proof. So the question of it being tampered with is completely ruled out.

It is pretty ironical that the black box is taking so long to find. The manner in which it is designed ensures that once the plane has crashed, it emits a beeping sound. Search parties are able to track the black box by this sound.

The team at the Mangalore crash site has been unable to track the black box and that might be for two reasons. Either the beep sound is not audible or the equipment with the search team is not good enough.

There have been cases where the black box has not emitted the beep due to lack of calibration and in that case, it is the duty of (plane manufacturing company) Boeing to ensure that happens.

The black box does not come under routine maintenance. It is mainly used following a crash and it cannot be manipulated. However it needs to be calibrated, failing which search parties will find it extremely hard to locate it after a crash.

The black box contains details of the engine RPM, pilots' conversations with the Air Traffic Controllers and all other flight related data. It is punched and every single parameter is recorded.

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Vicky Nanjappa