An Emergency Landing
I recently had to make an official trip from Islamabad to Karachi and Shaheen Airways turned out to be the only option given my meetings schedule. My misgivings about traveling on Shaheen airlines (given its bad reputation) were further fueled by news of the Bhoja airline crash near Rawalpindi, an incident that had happened only two days ago, in which all 121 passengers as well as crew had lost their lives.
With these worries on my mind, I boarded Shaheen Airways flight NL122, a Boeing 737 (same as the crashed Bhoja aircraft), on the morning of 22nd April 2012. To the Pilot’s credit the journey went quite smoothly. Maybe it was because of the Bhoja tragedy that the Pilot was being extra careful in keeping the passengers calm. Every minor turbulation was followed by an announcement declaring it as expected and assuring the passengers that there was no need to worry.
Everything went well, until we landed at Karachi Airport; as soon as the plane touched the runway, its left tyre burst with a loud explosion and it lost the whole accompanying assembly. The landing from that point onward was basically being carried out with the left engine serving as a tyre. Hats off to the Pilot for keeping the plane on the runway and bringing it to a screeching halt. It was then that I took the following photographs. I will explain each as we move along.
While the passengers were still trying to figure out what had happened, the air stewardess did the regular landing announcement. Believe it or not, but she told us the local time as well as temperature and asked us to make sure that we take our hand luggage with us, but not even a word about the situation that we were in. To top it off she came out into the main cabin and announced “kuch bhi nahi hua” (there is nothing wrong). But right outside our windows we could see ambulances and fire brigade engines coming screaming at us.
As a fellow passenger later informed us, the engine during its contact with the runway had been letting out sparks and flames. Media reports corroborated that and Express Tribune (ET) had the following on the emergency response to this incident; “Embers that sparked from the rims were extinguished with the help of water.” But this “extinguishing” with the help of “water” was not as simple as the ET would have you believe. Before I detail what exactly happened, it is important to note that on the 14th of April 2012, i.e. only eight days before this incident, there was a full scale emergency exercise that was carried out on the Karachi International Airport. The apparent “success” of that exercise was truly put in perspective after what we went through. In anycase, here is what I saw:
First came the fire brigade, fancy fire engines that looked straight out of some Hollywood movie, the firemen, decked in protective gear also pretty much looked the part, but then came the fire hose and guess what? it simply didn’t work.
First one fireman was struggling with the hose,
soon he was joined by another one but still nothing happened
even the third one didn’t make a difference, but then horror of all horrors the leaking fuel spread out to the extent that it became visible from the plane as encircled in the pictures below
I am no aviation emergency expert, but when a plane has crash landed, is leaking fuel, and has sparks flying out of its engine, then that to me is a justification for the necessity of emergency doors and those annoying emergency exit instructions at the beginning of every flight. But instead of calling for an emergency exit, the Pilot had us sit on this ticking time bomb, while his staff insisted that we drink either Sprite or Pepsi and remain “calm”, BECAUSE the pilot believed that everything was under control.
One explanation that I heard for this ridiculous behavior was that Shaheen Air might have appeared bad if we had used the emergency exit to disembark. The supposed incentive of both the Pilot and his employer was in giving a modicum of normalcy to an otherwise chaotic situation. I don’t know whether this is just a conspiracy theory or an accurate description of the reason behind this madness, but if its the latter then the lives of those 172 passengers and six crew members were being put in danger for the sake of some marketing leverage.
In anycase, the wait was for a staircase and a fellow passenger told me later on that he had called the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), asking for the expedited delivery of a staircase for our plane. BUT the response from the other end was that since the plane belonged to Shaheen airlines the call should also be made to them, thank you very much.
By that point the passengers had had enough of both Pepsi and Sprite and had started to get agitated. A gentleman sitting behind me got up and pulled out the emergency door.
This action was met by a severe reprimand from the air steward, who as a result faced double the hostility from the passengers. But even after the steward backed off, no one tried making an exit from this door, probably because this was the troubled side of the plane, and also that the fire hoses had finally started working.
From the moment our plane stopped on the runway, it took almost half an hour for the staircase to finally arrive, and a slow exit began. During that time a passenger had fainted and the trauma faced by the children was evident from their faces.
Stepping outside we got an idea of the scale of the accident, as seen in the pictures below.
Here is a news report on the incident.
Given the Bhoja tragedy, this was yet another carnage waiting to happen. From the clearance of the plane to take off, to the faulty fire hoses, to a pilot who didn’t know the meaning of an emergency exit, this whole experience represented a mockery of the norms of aviation conduct and also highlighted the value that was placed on the lives of 178 ordinary Pakistanis.
The sad part is that we most definitely should expect the same negligence in the coming days, as much worse has happened before this incident. As always the death of the next 121 can also be accredited to the marzi (will) of Allah.