Disaster averted: Jeep on runway forces Air India plane to lift off early from Pune

NEW DELHI: An Air India aircraft on high speed take off roll at Pune airport Saturday, 15 Feb 2020 morning was forced to get airborne earlier than planned to avoid a possible collision with a jeep that was dangerously near the airstrip. The aircraft had a speed of 220 kmph when an alert Captain Vikram Singh Besoa and first officer Mansika Harlan decided to go for early rotation — lifting nose wheel off the ground — instead of completing the take off roll as planned before doing so. The jeep belongs to Indian Air Force (IAF), which operates the Pune defence airfield, and there was also a man near the runway.
The rear section of Airbus A321, which has a longer fuselage than A320, scraped the runway in the process. Luckily it (VT-PPU) took off uneventfully at 7.55 am and flew all the 190 on board, including 180 passengers, safely to its destination Delhi as AI 852 where it landed at 10.17 am. “Prima facie, Captains Besoa and Harlan have prevented a disaster,” said a senior pilot.

Damage on the fuselage was discovered during inspection of the aircraft before being released for the next flight it was to operate to Srinagar as AI 825. AI has grounded the aircraft for checks and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is probing this incident.

In a statement, IAF confirmed that on Saturday morning “a service vehicle was cleared for routine task on the runway at Pune airfield. It reached close to the runway at a time when an Air India flight was on the take off roll.”

“Due to the presence of the vehicle near runway, the AI pilot had to do an earlier rotation, (earlier) than planned by the crew of the aircraft. The AI aircraft has landed safely in Delhi. The matter is under investigation by IAF,” the statement added.

An AI spokesman said: “The A321 aircraft, which came from Pune as AI 852, … was observed to have certain marks towards the (lower end)…. It has been withdrawn for the detailed investigation. The CVR (cockpit voice recorder) and SSFDR (flight data) readouts would be carried out and the findings shared appropriately.”

As per protocol, the crew has been taken off flying duty for so that they are available for the investigation. “We will have interaction with them shortly. IAF has been requested to preserve ATC recording for investigation,” said a DGCA official.

The pilots’ presence of mind and quick action has come in for praise. “The average decision speed (V1) — by which any decision to reject a takeoff must be made — for an A321 is 240-250 kmph, depending on various factors like temperature and weight of aircraft. The Pune-Delhi flight may have been below V1 but averting take off might have meant ramming the jeep and a disaster. So the pilots decided to get airborne as soon as possible. The A321 has a longer fuselage (compared to A320) and in almost all tail scrape/strikes involving this aircraft, the same is realised on seeing the marks after landing,” said one of the senior most commanders of AI.

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