When Indian planes flew with broken wings

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 29, 2011 21:15 hrs

Flying in India is an experience within itself. Everyone has a story to tell.

Some are funny, while others outright dangerous.

Some time back, Air India was for international flights and Indian Airlines for domestic ones. There was a third category of old aircraft meant for unpopular and less lucrative routes called Alliance Air.

Once I had to take that service to Patna on official duty. Those were the bad old days of pre-Nitish Kumar Bihar when my wife made me remove all my rings from my fingers before leaving. It was a time when things like ATMs and stopping at red lights were imaginary concepts.

On top of all that, the Patna-bound aircraft looked really old and rickety. Once inside, things looked worse. The interiors resembled a beat-up intercity bus. The air hostesses were explicitly hostile and un-co-operative.

When a man asked for water for the umpteenth time, one air hostess banged the glass on his food tray and stormed off, a signal for everyone else.

I took my window seat and settled down with a good old book. During take-off, a strange rattling sound came from all around, one which I had heard on no flight. It was as if the whole aircraft was shaking.

I concentrated on enjoying my bird's eye view of Delhi during take-off, but once in the air, the rattling sound steadily got worse. I ventured some courage and asked the air hostess about it, but she merely shrugged her shoulders.

Much before the scheduled arrival time, the seatbelt sign went on and the aircraft went into descent. Puzzled I looked out of the window and saw an airport. Could we have reached Patna so fast?

While landing I saw the Lucknow airport sign. I was under the impression that this was a direct flight! No-one got off and the air hostesses pleaded ignorance again. After waiting some 5-10 minutes I went near the exit. No-one stopped me. I got off the plane, on to the tarmac.

There I saw what looked like a massive welding operation in place. If you have ever seen a car being welded, then you'll notice that the whole paint gets knocked off from the area around the welding. The same thing was happening to the plane near the place where the wing joined the body of the plane.

The plane's pilot was watching the whole operation in earnest.

"What's going on?" I ventured to ask.

"Oh, nothing! The wing is falling off and we are welding it in place," said the pilot nonchalantly.

I couldn't believe my ears.

"Will we reach Patna?" I asked.

"Oh yes! We will definitely make it to Patna!"

I paused and said, "Are you joking?"

The pilot lost his cool and yelled, "I said I'll get you to Patna, didn't I?"

I got in and was relieved to find the rattling noise somewhat reduced once in the air.

"It was probably a teeny weeny crack," I assured myself.

"It happens all the time," I consoled myself.

I took the same plane back to Delhi. The only unusual thing was an unconscious woman being dragged by two men into the plane. They all sat at the back. No-one batted an eye-lid. Such things were common in these parts, I guessed. I reached safe and sound.

After about 10 days when I was sitting in the news desk of my newspaper office, I was horrified to read on the news ticker that the very same plane had crashed killing dozens on board.

I followed all the agency stories for days and the reason behind the crash remained inconclusive.

For a two-time passenger of that flight and despite having no aviation investigating skills whatsoever, the reason seemed clear: The plane was simply not air worthy!

In fact that used to be the joke those days. That all the old Indian Airlines aircraft meant for the scrapyard eventually ended up in Alliance Air.

Alliance Air always threw up such surprises. A similarly old plane bound for Port Blair (the capital of Andaman & Nicobar Islands) was scarier for the simple reason that we flew over the sea for most of the time. Where would you land if you wanted to weld this plane?

An oddity I noticed at Port Blair was the concept of an airway crossing. Like a railway crossing has barriers on both sides of the track, there was one for planes. There's a main road just next to the wall that marks the end of the runway.

When we reached that point in a bus on our way out, the barriers were put down as a plane was about to take off. It's just like waiting for a train to pass by except we saw a plane pass right above our heads!

On the way back when the plane took off, the passenger next to me exclaimed, "Thank God we took off on the first attempt!"

"What do you mean by that," I asked?

He went on to explain how the last time the pilot did so on only his third attempt. He talked of the unique incline and shortness of the runway leading to the fact that sometimes pilots did not get enough speed to take off. They would abort and retry.

A few passengers around him concurred.

Another time I was bound for Nagpur airport and I saw a TV news feature on how animals regularly came on the runway and were a major hazard for planes. The IAF even put hundreds of airmen on both sides during a take-off to prevent animals from entering the runway.

I told this to my father.

"Ha!" he scoffed, "That's old hat!"

He told me that when Nagpur airport was formed, farmers would regularly break the wall to let cattle in to graze. The authorities had given up and everyone had forgotten about it. It was only now that TV was exposing a very old story.

An airport serving as a grazing ground! That must be a new one.

Recently in Chennai airport disaster was averted when three planes were in dangerous proximity. Before that a plane got stuck in the mud in Mumbai airport. Before that, a plane crashed off a gorge in Mangalore…

Every Indian airport has a gruesome story to tell...

Why do air accidents happen in the world?

Pilot error, technical snags, inclement weather, bird hits...

Why do air mishaps happen in India?

Unfit planes, fake pilots, crazy airports, stray ground animals, general inefficiency, incompetence and mismanagement...
Take your pick.

And don't forget to say your prayers before you board that plane!

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The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger. He blogs at http://sunilrajguru.com/