How did the Crash of Flight PK8303 Happen?

As Pakistan mourned the crash of flight PK8303 in Karachi that occurred before the Eid holidays and as the deceased were being identified, an investigation into the cause of the crash was speedily conducted and is ongoing. Immediately after it happened, the crash was covered here; (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/crash-of-airplane-pk8303-in-karachi/). It presented a great deal of initial speculation as to the cause of the tragedy. Since then, with the passage of weeks, a lot more information has come out and many theories have been constructed. The black box was recovered from the airplane wreckage and its data has been gathered. The government of Pakistan has promised that an initial inquiry report on the accident will be released on June 22 and a full report will arrive a few months later. But enough information, gleamed from records of communication between pilot and air traffic control, eyewitness accounts, and forensic investigation, has already been made public to provide us with a concise scenario of how the plane crashed. However, there is still much uncertainty about what exactly happened.

We know that the airplane, an Airbus A320 jet airliner that took off from Lahore on a 90-minute flight, aborted its first landing attempt at Jinnah International Airport and made a go-around (circling around to make the same landing). The pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, reported dual engine failure and then issued a mayday alert to air traffic control. Transmission was then lost and the plane, on its final landing approach, veered off course and crashed into a residential area known as Model Colony. Only two of the 99 people onboard have survived and, at first, there were only injuries among people on the ground. However, a 12-year old girl injured in the plane crash later tragically passed away (https://www.samaa.tv/news/pakistan/2020/06/12-year-old-injured-in-pk-8303-crash-passes-away-in-karachi/).

Before going any further, we should all be aware of the fact that the pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, appears to have steered his plane to avoid hitting homes so that the plane landed in the middle of a neighborhood road. This is truly an immensely heroic act that a person on the verge of death did to protect others. It undoubtedly saved many people, as the Model Colony neighborhood the plane crashed into was densely populated. Sources describe it as being congested. Yet, no doubt thanks to the pilot’s quick thinking and composure, casualties among people on the ground have been light.

Just as commendable is the heroism of the rescue workers, professionals and ordinary people, who worked to recover victims from the crash zone under great danger, braving high temperatures and a massive fire that broke out around the crash site, while the congested layout of the neighborhood made delivery of relief efforts challenging. Then there are the medical personnel, tirelessly working to treat the injured and getting themselves prepared to treat any injured even as the severe coronavirus outbreak in Sindh has stretched the healthcare sector thin. The agencies of Pakistan tasked with safety and relief have done a commendable job responding to the plane crash.

Also critically important is the job of those who are working to find out how it was that the plane crashed, information that will aid us in improving safety standards to prevent such an accident from happening again. I believe that this awareness is more urgently needed right now than we may think, because this plane crash has not come at an ordinary time for Pakistan and for its aviation sector. We happen to be in unprecedented circumstances, a time of enormous crisis and disruption all across the nation, indeed the world, and this current situation could be a factor in the PIA plane crashing. If so, then we are likely in imminent danger of further aviation accidents/incidents during the time we are in and we need to respond quickly.

First, let us look at the facts available. Sources said early on that a technical issue, most likely failure to deploy the undercarriage, or landing gear, caused the plane to abort landing. Two runways were then offered to the plane. However, instead of utilizing them, the plane made a go-around. Then, according to the air traffic control communications, another technical fault occurred, failure of both the plane’s turbofan engines, which is corroborated by a lot of evidence. Eyewitness reports suggest that the plane’s wings were on fire. The plane flew into the neighborhood while its front part was tilted upwards, which is a sign it was trying to ascend. Photos of the airplane wreckage on the ground show the blades of the turbofan engine to be undamaged, which suggest that they were not turning when the plane crashed.

Records of air traffic communications are reported to have revealed a grave pilot error that took place before the crash. Apparently, the airplane was too high in altitude when it was approaching the airport runway. ATC warned the pilot to lower the airplane but he ignored those warnings and descended too close to the runway, resulting in the plane travelling at a dangerously high speed when it was first about to land. Sajjad Gul is a senior pilot with 24 years of experience in the airline industry.

A preliminary report by the Civil Aviation Authority (detailed here https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/663140-new-questions-rise-over-plane-crash-report-on-crash-causes-in-90-days), who declared that they found skid marks on the first runway the plane attempted to land on, suggests that after the landing gear failed to deploy while the plane was landing, the plane flew so low that the jet engines, but not the belly, scraped the ground three times and were damaged. The plane climbed back into the air again. The aircrew failed to notify air traffic control of landing gear failure until the plane was making a go-around to retry the same landing. The plane ascended to 3,000 feet but could not hold the altitude, perhaps because fuel was leaking, and then tilted, upon which the crash happened.

Multiple things are being reported as having gone wrong at the end of the plane’s journey, but if they are true, they may all be connected. It is possible that when the plane was landing at a high speed, the crew was busy trying to slow it down and forgot to deploy the landing gear in the process. Then the plane engines were damaged by scraping the runway and so malfunctioned in the air, resulting in the plane coming down.

This explanation, or some variant thereof, of how the plane crashed may very well be true. But when it comes to the broader picture of what made the disaster possible, the timing of the plane crash is something that is very important to note. It happened just after airplanes like PK8303 were back in the air after a long nationwide grounding, part of an unprecedented worldwide drop in air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Pakistan, all commercial flights were banned on 29 March. The ban on domestic flights was lifted on 16 May in time for the Eid holidays, which came just after the day the plane crashed. This has been a very difficult and unique time for the aviation industry in Pakistan and the entire world, one that nobody was prepared for. A two-month grounding of airplanes throughout the country is unprecedented. The pandemic and severe economic problems are also disrupting everything in Pakistan and making life for everybody very hard. This backdrop to the plane crash therefore naturally leads us to one question: did the impact of the coronavirus pandemic play a part in the plane crash?

According to a summary report by aviation authorities, PK8303, which had been flying for sixteen years, was grounded under the virus lockdown between March 22 and May 7, after which it did six flights while reporting no defects. It last underwent a routine inspection the day before 21 March and the last major check was on October 19, 2019. This long hiatus in safety inspection may have caused technical defects with the plane to go unnoticed before it resumed flight. Also, when a plane is grounded for a long period of time, it is supposed to undergo test flights before resuming normal operations to make sure its performance is fine. This seems not to have happened with PK8303.

Aviation safety relies a great deal upon the financial capacity of the aviation industry. Making sure flying is safe can be so expensive that, sometimes, airliners tarry at this job in order to save costs. It is a big problem at the best of times, especially for an airliner of a developing country like PIA, but the coronavirus pandemic is putting the aviation industry on the verge of a financial catastrophe. Because of the total grounding of flights, airline companies are making much less money while still maintaining their fleets. The government is supposed to help out, but it is very difficult for ours to do so when it has to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus crisis all over the country and with severe economic problems stemming from other causes, including a severe, long-running locust outbreak and inflation. Plus, virus restrictions impact all activities of life. Airline employees likely could not do their normal job without great risk. In this battle to fight the virus that has taken the country by storm, it must have become harder for aviation to guard against other threats. They might also be tempted to relax safety standards to preserve what little profitability is possible.

Even after the lockdown on planes was lifted, the airlines continue to operate under great strain. Far fewer people are flying than in normal times, which means that airlines continue to be short on cash. There has been a rush as Pakistanis wanted to go back to their hometown to be with their families for Eid, but social distancing measures meant that most passenger planes are occupied far below their full capacity, with every second seat being kept empty. This SOP fortunately prevented PK 8303 from being one of the deadliest plane crashes in Pakistan’s history. Also, the air travel industry has an enormous responsibility to ensure the coronavirus is not spread by air travel, whether it is by infected people traveling to other places or transmission taking place during flight, when lots of people are crammed into a tight space. Airliners now have to save the world in addition to making sure their planes land safely. It is a huge burden that may have stressed PIA’s capacity to a dangerous level.

All in all, the enormous challenges that aviation is going through as a result of the pandemic may have compromised the maintenance and inspection of airplanes, causing technical defects to build-up and go unnoticed. Whether or not this is what made the crash of PK8303 possible, it is a hazard that very likely exists. We cannot ignore this risk. We must recognize that more plane accidents could occur in the days ahead because of the impact of the pandemic on aviation and we have to take action against the threat. We need to conduct a risk assessment to investigate just how aviation safety is being affected by current circumstances. As difficult as it may be during the pandemic, we must pay extra attention to maintaining aviation safety standards, making sure that all airplanes are thoroughly inspected and well-maintained and subjecting planes to adequate testing before resumption of their normal duties. Matters will only get worse if planes start crashing in the middle of a severe pandemic.

It is widely presumed that a malfunction due to internal factors with the ill-fated plane caused it to crash. But there is also the possibility of an external factor that caused damage to the plane while it was flying. Engine failure is generally considered to be a cause of the plane crash, but as for what caused this failure, jet engines are vulnerable to spontaneous malfunction but are also vulnerable to whatever goes into the engine while it is operating. Jet engines suck in a tremendous amount of air, but we always hope that it is only air going into it, because if solid objects collide with the engines, it can cause serious damage and sometimes an accident like what happened with flight PK8303.

When a plane is in the air, such collisions are usually with birds, and indeed, several experts have already entertained the idea of a “bird strike” contributing to the plane crash in Karachi. Birds always impact with flying planes at very high speed, which means they hit with such strong force that various parts of the plane can be damaged. But jet engines are the most vulnerable. A bird being ingested in there can cause the fan blades to buckle in a domino effect that causes engine failure. If the bird’s body goes behind the blades, it can cause some deeper damage resulting in fuel leakage, which can start a fire in the engine. Birds can also strike and damage panels on the airplane wings, such as flaps and ailerons, when they are open, creating difficulty with controlling the plane’s movement at crucial moments, like landing. Bird strikes usually happen when passenger planes are taking off or landing, as airplanes usually fly at altitudes too high for birds.

The bigger a bird is, the more dangerous a strike can be. There are a lot of large birds in Karachi, including vultures, so a hit with one could definitely have taken down the Airbus plane. But if a plane runs into a flock of birds, it is also very dangerous as many birds might collide. It could explain why both engines of the PK8303 plane failed, as birds could have gone into both at the same time. We may need eyewitness and video accounts to tell us if there were birds over Jinnah International Airport at the time the airplane crashed. Also, if a bird strike indeed happened, we should be able to find the bird remains (known as “snarge” in aviation speak) in the airplane wreckage.

We should keep in mind that birds are not the only animals that fly. In fact, right now, one other type of animal is buzzing in the skies over Pakistan in great numbers, because enormous locust swarms have been invading the region for several months now. It is believed to be the biggest locust invasion in 70 years and some of the swarms are the size of major cities. Locusts began swarming in East Africa in 2018 and they very quickly reached Pakistan, where Karachi was inundated by locusts in November 2019 for the first time since 1961. The locust swarms within Pakistan have only been getting stronger since then as locusts are breeding in our farmlands. Pakistan declared a state of emergency over them in February and FAO predicted that swarms across Africa and Asia will further explode in numbers by June, a month that has just arrived.

Desert locusts, the species involved, are large insects and fly in dense formations. Any plane that flies through a swarm could potentially receive a big load of locusts. One locust may not do a lot of damage, but a large number of locusts getting splattered onto even a large passenger jet plane can possibly have a serious impact. Had PK8303 engaged in such a contact with any of the vast locust swarms overrunning Pakistan, it might have enabled the crashing of the plane.

Caution already exist in the aviation world against planes flying through locust swarms. In September 2010, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) issued a national notice to pilots about the dangers that locusts, swarming in Australia at that time, posed to aircraft. It said that locusts could be smeared on the windscreen and reduce visibility and could block engine intakes and overheat the engines, making failure possible. The insects could also clog the pitot tubes of an airplane, therefore causing difficulty in accurately reading the plane’s airspeed. As for the current locust swarms across Africa and Asia, an official warning so far has been issued just a few days ago by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) that the locust swarms that recently entered India have become so big that these pose an aviation hazard. They warned of instruments and sensors being damaged by locusts, air intake inlets being clogged, and locusts being smeared on the windshield.

The engine failure the doomed PIA plane is believed to have suffered before crashing on May 22 could have happened due to both jet engines ingesting enough locusts. Locusts are not soft objects. They have an exoskeleton made out of a tough material known as chitin, so it’s definitely not good for such things to go into the engine of a flying plane. And then there is the effect locust collisions could have on the plane’s instruments and sensors, which allow the pilot to know important things like how fast the plane is going. If reports of pilot error on PK8303 are true, then they could have been caused by locust strikes. For instance, if the pitot tubes of the airplane were clogged by locusts and the pilot could not accurately read the airspeed, it could have caused him to approach the runway at too high a speed or to veer off course on the second landing attempt or when the engines failed. We can be pretty certain that locusts did not get smeared over the windshield or the pilot would certainly have reported it.

Southern Sindh is a hotbed of locust swarming in Pakistan right now. So it is possible that PK8303 encountered such a swarm as it made its ill-fated approach to Jinnah International Airport. There have been recent reports of locust swarms in proximity to Karachi, such as this news item on May 5 that said locusts were attacking Karachi suburbs (https://arynews.tv/en/locusts-swarms-attack-crops-in-suburban-areas-of-karachi/). However, Karachi is not being inundated by locusts the way it was in late 2019 and the sighting of a locust swarm over Karachi the day the PIA airplane crashed has not been reported. Nevertheless, Flight PK8303 could have been struck by locusts at any time during its last journey. It took off from Lahore and flew straight to Karachi, which placed its flight trajectory right across Punjab and Sindh, Pakistan’s breadbaskets and therefore prime territory for locust swarming.

Commercial airliners, however, spend most of their flight at an altitude too high for locusts. Locusts can only fly at very low elevations and PK8303 could not possibly have encountered any while it was cruising between Lahore and Karachi. The only times when airplanes are likely to encounter flying locusts is when they are taking off and landing. There is a strong possibility of this happening to PK8303 during these two stages in its last flight, given that Lahore and Karachi are both right in the middle of locust territory. According to statistics compiled by the FAO, while the majority of locust breeding in Pakistan is taking place in Balochistan, the rest is in southern Sindh and northeastern Punjab, exactly where those two cities are (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2230538/2-locust-attack-poses-famine-risk/). Adult locusts also have a strong presence in these areas. Even if the doomed airplane did not strike locusts while trying to land in Karachi, it could have done so shortly after taking off in Lahore, which could have ended up contributing to the crash more than an hour later. If the jet engines were what sustained the fatal damage, the reason they failed only when the plane was landing could be because plane engines are under particularly high strain during the landing phase, so PK8303’s engines would be unable to cope with this action even as they were able to carry the plane along on its 90-minute voyage. If instruments and sensors were damaged, they could have ended up being problematic only during landing.

Furthermore, there is also the possibility that PK8303 sustained damage from locust strikes at any time in its flight history since it was last checked on 21 March or thoroughly inspected on October 19 last year. It could have been struck by individual locusts several times during the locust upsurge in the region, thereby gradually sustaining damage. This damage would be unnoticed for some time but, sooner or later, it would end up triggering a major accident.

If the current locust invasions are responsible for playing a part in the crash of PK8303, it may not necessarily be strikes with the locusts themselves that the airplane experienced. Collisions with birds are much more dangerous than collisions with locusts, but a locust upsurge can raise the likelihood of both. That is because a lot of birds, including birds of large sizes, eat locusts, so wherever there are a lot more locusts in the sky, there are always going to be a lot more birds, and wherever there are a lot more birds, the danger to airplanes is a lot higher. Israel, for instance, has to deal with a very high bird-strike risk because the country lies on a migratory bird route.

Birds usually find their food on or close to the ground and therefore spend a lot of time either keeping their two feet on land or flying too low to encounter airplanes. But a locust swarm means an enormous feast right up there in the sky, a rare spectacle that any insectivorous bird will eagerly take advantage of the entire time it lasts. Also, if locusts are swarming in a particular area, birds far and wide will travel to that area, crowding in the air above it. Finally, the current locust upsurge of Africa and Asia has been going on since mid-2018 and hovering around Pakistan since mid-2019. In that amount of time, the bird populations in the affected regions could have grown. All in all, the skies over Pakistan and the wider region around it have become a lot more crowded and airplanes must now find it much more difficult to avoid running into creatures with either feathers or six legs.

The tragic crash of PK8303 in Karachi on May 22, 2020, may have come about, in part, due to the locust upsurge and the way it is filling the skies with winged objects. It could also have come about due to the coronavirus pandemic and the way it is sucking money from airlines and throwing the aviation industry into a storm of difficulties. But even if these two upheavals of our time have nothing to do with the recent plane crash that took the lives of 98 people, the dangers they pose to aviation is still there and very real. Therefore, there is a heightened chance that further airplane mishaps and disasters will occur in the times we are in.

This means we have to be extra vigilant and take into account the aviation hazards outlined above. If we continue with forbidding mass passenger air travel from occurring, as Pakistan and many other countries have done during the coronavirus lockdowns, it may be a good policy. In this time of overarching crisis, we might decide that only essential goods and people will be traveling by air. But if we continue to allow airplanes to occupy the skies and people to occupy those airplanes, we have to identify the additional risks they currently face and mitigate those risks. We need to make sure that airlines maintain their usual safety standards while handling the novel challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. If any airline company is being tempted to cut costs, we need to be able to find out and to discipline them. Airline companies should also be provided with financial assistance from the government or from donations during the coronavirus crisis. Locust swarms have to be closely monitored so we can detect locust presence near airports or air routes. Every measure must be undertaken to keep locusts and birds away from these sensitive areas. If need be, we remove all crops and vegetation that are in proximity to urban areas, perhaps by allowing locusts to deplete them quickly, so planes can take-off and land safely.

Aviation safety and risk is, of course, a big issue at all times. A lot of work needs to be done to make aviation safe within Pakistan and, given the highly integrated nature of global aviation, we need to make sure air travel across the world is safe for Pakistanis and for people travelling on Pakistani airliners.

So as for the recent aviation disaster Pakistan has suffered just before Eid, we are waiting as the investigation proceeds. Knowing the truth is important so that the survivors, the loved ones of the victims, and the nation can have closure and so that further tragedies can be prevented. We are relying on the official investigation to come to a conclusion and we may all gravitate towards believing what seems like the most likely explanation. But we have to consider and think of every possibility in what happened. It may be said that we have to be creative, going through the information we have, not only information directly pertaining to the crash but information way beyond, coming up with any hypothesis that is possible, and see how it resonates with the facts.

For example, pilot error is being considered as a major factor in the crash. The captain apparently made a series of mistakes that could have been avoided. It makes us wonder how such an experienced pilot could have acted out this way and then we may start making judgments on him (we shouldn’t get prejudiced easily). But in relating the crash to the wider circumstances again, I thought of one possibility, which is that, what if the pilot was sick with COVID-19? The disease is spreading rapidly. People working in the airline industry are among those most likely to get infected. Serious illnesses often hamper a person’s mental and physical performance, making us sluggish or slow-witted. COVID-19, for its part, has shown signs of having a neurological impact. Many coronaviruses, also, have been known to infect the brain. As our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 progresses, perhaps we will find out that it can impact the nervous system as well. We have to find out whether or not Sajjad Gul was suffering this way when he was in the cockpit for the last time. Was his dead body inspected for the coronavirus? Could we exhume him and find signs that he was infected?

Any possibility must be investigated.

So, what does PPLDM consider, as of this writing, to be the most likely scenario? Well, we are almost sure about three things going wrong with the flight; the plane being on an improper trajectory on its first landing attempt, the landing gear not being lowered, and the engines failing. It is unlikely for all three events to be a coincidence, so the storyline we may consider most reliable for now is that the plane’s unusual descent trajectory caused an unstable landing, which caused the cockpit crew to forget to employ the landing gear, which caused the engines to scrape the runway, which damaged them so much that they failed and caused the plane to veer off course and descend. It must be unlikely, also, that it is a coincidence the crash happened in the time of coronavirus-induced turbulence experienced by aviation and just after a long air grounding in Pakistan. If a malfunction was the primal cause of the crash, it is highly likely that technical faults were allowed to build-up in the plane during the pandemic.

However, if pilot error was the primal cause, and all malfunctions were the result of that, how can we relate this to the pandemic? Maybe the pilot was stressed by this and other circumstances affecting Pakistanis at that time. Maybe his thinking was impacted. We can also allow the possibility of human error and malfunction coinciding. So the scenario can be that the pilot steered the plane on an unstable descent path and this combined with a (possibly pandemic-induced) problem with the landing gear or the warning systems resulted in the landing gear failing, and the rest followed.

We watch as the investigation into the causes of the plane crash proceeds and we wait for the official results of the investigation to be released to the public. Hopefully, this investigation is being conducted in a fair, honest and intelligent manner so we can really know what happened.

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