By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The pilots of a Pakistan airliner that crashed last month, killing 97 people, were distracted as they talked about the coronavirus pandemic throughout the flight before an abortive landing bid, an initial inquiry report showed on Wednesday.
Presenting the report in parliament, Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said both the pilots and officials at air traffic control did not follow set procedures, leading to the crash.
The pilots were not “focused” because of the coronavirus pandemic, he added, though the aircraft had no technical fault.
“Unfortunately…the discussion throughout was about corona,” Khan said, referring to exchanges between the pilot and co-pilot on the cockpit voice recorder that he said showed they were not focused on their tasks.
“Corona was dominant over their mind. Their family was affected, and they were discussing corona.”
The aircraft suffered no technical flaw, Khan said.
“The unfortunate plane was 100% fit to fly. It had no technical fault at all. The captain and the co-pilot were experienced and medically fit to fly the plane.”
The inquiry report showed the pilot had not mentioned any technical fault during the final approach, Khan added, although the aircraft was flying at 7,220 feet (2,200 m) when 10 miles (16 km) distant from the runway.
“The plane should have been at an altitude of 2,500 feet,” he said, or the equivalent of 762 m.
Khan added that air traffic control drew the pilot’s attention to the irregularity, and advised against landing, urging another go-around instead.
“But, despite this, the pilot ignored the controller’s instruction,” the minister said.
“When they were in landing position, they were warned by the controllers, but he said, ‘I’ll manage’… and then they started discussing corona again.”
The Pakistan International Airlines Airbus A320 <AIR.PA> from the eastern city of Lahore crashed on May 22 in a residential part of the southern city of Karachi, coming down about a kilometre (0.6 mile) short of the runway on its second attempt to land.
Its flight data recorder showed the landing gear was raised after having been lowered in preparation for landing, Khan said.
“When the aircraft was at 10 nautical miles, the landing gear was lowered,” he said. “But it is beyond comprehension that at 5 nautical miles the landing gear was raised again.”
Khan added, “The last words from the pilot were, ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God.'”
(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Additional Reporting by Gibran Peshimam in Karachi, Tim Hepher in Paris and Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)