Crash of Airplane PK8303 in Karachi

Following policy brief was issued by PPLDM on 23 May, 2020, after the tragic passenger plane crash in Karachi.

PK8303, an Airbus A320 passenger plane belonging to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), en route from Lahore, was approaching to land at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi when it crashed into a residential area. According to reports that have come out so far, the airplane made an attempt to land which was aborted and, as the plane circled around and made a second attempt, it missed the runway by only a few hundred feet, an extremely short distance in aviation terms, and collided with houses in a densely-crowded residential area called “Model Colony,” destroying several of them. The pilot issued a mayday just before this happened.

The airplane was carrying 91 passengers and eight crew (according to reports so far). At least 80 people are confirmed dead. It is unclear yet if the dead were all onboard the plane or if the toll includes people on the ground where the plane crashed. Households in Pakistan tend to have a lot of family members and, because of coronavirus, a lot of people across Pakistan are indoors. The plane crash took place during Ramadan, when Muslims are often homebound during afternoon, although due to the time of crash coinciding with Friday prayer, most men were out of their homes, praying at mosques. Therefore, it is likely that many people were in the houses that were struck. On the other hand, the plane was half-full because of covid-19 fears and related regulations. Due to the crash taking place at the end of an hour-long flight, the amount of jet fuel involved in the resultant fire is low. Two passengers so far are confirmed as having survived the crash, along with 11 or so people from the neighborhood who are reported to be injured. That of course means that they are still alive as I write. Whether their lives will be saved altogether, we have to wait and see for the following days and weeks. Right now, first responders and rescue workers are valiantly working to retrieve bodies from the rubble as fires rage and smoke billows at the site of airplane’s wreckage and surrounding houses and streets.

The plane crash comes just before the arrival of the Eid-ul-Fitr holidays and days after coronavirus lockdown was lifted in Pakistan and commercial flights were allowed. This tragedy comes at a very difficult time for Pakistan and for the whole world. Five million people have already been infected by the coronavirus globally, most of them in a handful of countries. Pakistan is one of the countries where the pandemic is at medium level. Domestic flights were allowed so that Pakistanis could return to their hometowns to spend Eid. PK8303 was one of the planes filled with such people. Due to the crash, a state of emergency was declared in hospitals across Karachi, at a time when hospitals and healthcare workers across the nation are already overstretched. Taking care of people injured due to the plane crash will be a challenge if the injured turn out to be a lot. The upside is that healthcare facilities are on high alert at all times due to the pandemic, so they have been able to respond rapidly. However, providing care to plane crash victims is very different from caring for coronavirus patients, as former requires trauma and burn units.

Information has been coming out rapidly about the crash. Recordings of communications with air traffic control reveal that the pilot made an attempt to land which was aborted, telling air traffic controllers that it was because of a technical issue. He circled around and made a second attempt when he reported loss of engine power. He then issued a mayday alert before the transmission ended, upon which the plane crashed. Reports suggest that the first landing attempt failed because landing great did not deploy. The pilot was told to climb to higher altitude but the plane apparently lost power and was gliding when it missed the runway. It is believed that both the plane engines failed. Reportedly, the tail end of the plane struck the ground first. Survivors must have been from the front part of the plane. Eyewitnesses are reported to have said the airplane was on fire before it crashed on the ground. Right now, we can only conjecture about the cause of the crash. We might get a clear idea of how the accident happened when we open up the black box.

Failure of the jet engines is the likely cause of the crash, but what was the cause of engine failure? If both engines failed and failure of the landing gear also happened, it means the plane suffered from multiple technical faults. In such case, there could have been technical defect/s in the plane that were missed during routine inspections. However, engine failure can also happen if something collides with the engines of a jet airplane. Jet engines, which face forward and suck in air with tremendous force to provide power and thrust, become extremely vulnerable if any object is ingested. Even ice sloughing off the airplane can cause damage. The turbines can be seriously damaged and even fail. Usually, it is collision with birds that causes this sort of thing. Bird strikes are one of the world’s biggest aviation hazards, causing damage even to airplane parts other than engines. This might have happened with flight PK8303 today.

At present, there is another strong speculative candidate that may have struck the airplane in Karachi, locusts. Since December of last year, desert locusts have been swarming across eastern Africa and western Asia in truly biblical numbers. In Pakistan, massive swarms caused a state of emergency to be declared in February and are only getting stronger. Sindh has been suffering from dreadful attack of locusts for months now, even breeding in much of the province right now, and Karachi has been experiencing swarms for the first time since 1961. Could it be possible, then, that collision with locusts caused the airplane to lose control? Desert locusts are very large insects with very tough cuticle exoskeletons. Their swarms can be very dense. A lot of damage can be caused if a plane runs into a swarm and collides with a large number of these insects.

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) once issued a warning to pilots in 2010 about the dangers of flying through a locust swarm. The warning said it could cause loss of engine power and loss of visibility, as expected, and the locusts could also block the aircraft’s pitot tubes, causing inaccurate airspeed readings. (https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/aircraft-warned-to-avoid-flying-in-locust-plague-areas/news-story/f3710161cfa721e6cd69898c7dd97402)

If run-in with either a swarm of locusts or a flock of birds happened to PK 8303, it could explain why both engines failed at the same time. The animals would have gone into both. Loss of visibility probably did not happen, or the pilot would have reported it. However, if locusts clogged up the airspeed reading device, it could have prevented the pilot from being able to accurately land his plane on the runway, causing the aborted landing attempt and maybe even the plane flying into the neighborhood next to the runway. Bird or locust strikes are a high possibility when a plane is at low altitude. If a big and dense flock of swarms is involved, eyewitnesses should be able to spot and report them.

Alternatively, even only a few birds could have been responsible for downing the airplane. If so, could it still be connected with the locust outbreaks? Whenever a plane suffers a serious bird strike, it is often because there is large number of birds in the air. More birds entail a greater likelihood of bird-plane collisions. Could it be, then, that the PIA airplane crashed because of collisions with birds that were following the locusts? With such large locust swarms, one should expect that birds will also be gathering in large number to prey on locusts. Even if no locusts were present in Karachi today, birds may have been crossing the city on their way to locust hunting. We need to examine whether the locust plagues have been causing a denser gathering of birds in the sky.

PPLDM has been deeply concerned about the tremendous damage to our food supply that the locusts have been wreaking. While air travel is slowly resuming as coronavirus restrictions ease, we also need to be on the lookout for the additional traffic hazards that locust swarms pose. They could even be a hazard to traffic on the road, including motorcyclists. Studies have suggested people on motorbikes can be seriously injured if they collide with flying insects, presumably of kinds much smaller than locusts, at high speed. As we strive to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic is not worsened by people flying by air, we need to take into account another distinct hazard these days, avian threats to plane’s structure, and issue proper aviation warnings on this hazard. We are already ensuring that the virus is not transmitted inside airplanes by issuing SOPs. What is the SOP on avian hazard warning, a particularly high concern at present? We also need to educate media about this hazard so it can pressurize civil aviation management to cancel flights if plausible extraneous hazards are detected.

Also, because today’s plane crash in Karachi took place during the coronavirus pandemic and an unprecedented drop in global air travel, we should also consider if there is a connection between the two. The grounding of airlines for months and the disruptions caused by the pandemic might have resulted in lax maintenance and inspection of aircraft. I imagine that the keeping up of air safety standards could have been running into some challenges during an unprecedented time like this which nobody has prepared for or is used to. If a passenger jet crashes right after the country’s air travel has resumed following a record-breaking hiatus, and while air traffic is under high burden due to the Eid holidays (trying to keep passengers apart and boarding low when so many people must be trying to get on a plane), there is a good chance it is not a coincidence.

Still, this plane crash is far from unusual within Pakistan or for a Pakistani airliner, unfortunately. Pakistan has a poor air safety record. Major air accidents with significant casualties have occurred every few years throughout the nation’s history. Since the start of this year alone, there have already been five plane crashes before PK8303, though they were all of small aircraft with few people involved. The first was an aircraft that was spraying pesticides to fight locusts when it crashed on January 12, killing two people onboard, and the rest were of military aircraft, including a fighter jet crashing at Shakar Parian Islamabad while practicing for Pakistan Day parade. Two of the military crashes caused fatalities of people onboard.

The enormous tragedy that has occurred in Karachi today has delivered shock and trauma to a nation reeling under the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and locust plagues and will dampen the spirit of Eid celebrations for us all – celebrations that have already been physically suppressed due to the virus. This is the first time in a few years that a massive and sudden tragedy occurred in Pakistan just before the start of Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan. The other time was on June 25, 2017, when an oil tanker on a highway in rural Punjab crashed and ignited spilt oil while a huge crowd of people was present, killing more than two hundred and injuring many more. (See “Tragedy at Bahawalpur” at https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/first-blog-post/)

History has also repeated itself with this sudden high-casualty disaster occurring in Pakistan while the nation is coping with a much larger crisis of longer duration. Ten years ago, on July 28, an Airbus A321, Airblue Flight 202, crashed in the Margalla Hills north of Islamabad due to heavy fog and rainfall, killing all 152 on board, just as two months of monsoon rainfall began that would cause record-breaking floods submerging a fifth of Pakistan, killing 2,000 Pakistanis, and directly affecting 20 million. To this day, Airblue Flight 202 remains the deadliest aviation accident in Pakistan’s history and the 2010 monsoon floods the biggest natural disaster to ever strike Pakistan in terms of the number of people impacted.

2020 is a year of enduring challenges and countless tragedies for the world. As our nation grapples with the tragedy that transpired on 22 May, the difficult truth is that we have to continue to contend with tremendous challenges and crises in the days ahead and for the foreseeable future. There will be no respite. Eid is always supposed to be a joyous occasion for Muslims everywhere, but this Eid, we cannot go out for customary shopping, festivities, and social gatherings on account of social distancing. Widespread food shortages and economic hardships also persist across the nation. The least we hoped for was that people be able to spend Eid with their loved ones, but now, around 100 or so Pakistani Muslim families will be deprived forever of a beloved member. They will spend Eid in deep mourning and the rest of us will spend Eid with dampened spirit.

We may be bewildered by the way so many adversarial circumstances are coming together to harm us, but we must persevere. We must resolve that we will endure the hardships we are going through and be strong in the face of the losses we have suffered. Furthermore, we have to be adaptable, innovative, and smart in the face of everything that this year is throwing at us. It is the only way we can overcome the highly complex and novel challenges that Pakistan and the entire world is going through. This is a time of enormous struggle for our nation. There is no way to tell when the struggle will be over and where it will lead us, but we have to continue fighting with determination and do anything we can to fight back. When we succeed, we will emerge from this era stronger than before.