On Friday a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) A320 crashed on approach to Karachi, which is incredibly tragic. The world is going through a tough enough time already, and to see so many lives lost in an accident like this is heartbreaking.
Just as a reminder of the very basics:
- The plane attempted to land in Karachi and executed a go around
- After the first go around the crew reported that they “lost engines,” and then shortly thereafter declared a mayday
The plane was descending steep during the first approach
Here’s the ATC audio with some useful visualization of what happened during both the first and second landing attempt:
No emergency was declared during the first landing attempt, though the ATC audio on approach is interesting:
Pilot to ATC: Sir we are comfortable now and we are out of 3,500 for 3,000 established ILS 25L.
ATC to Pilot: Roger. Turn left heading 180.
Pilot to ATC: Sir, we are established in ILS 25L.
ATC to Pilot: You are five miles off? 3,000?
Pilot to ATC: Roger.
ATC to Pilot: Pakistan 8303, cleared to land 25L.
The issue here is that being at an altitude of 3,000 feet five miles out is very high. That means they’d have to descend 3,000 feet over 26,400 feet, which is unusually steep for a standard approach.
ATC tells the pilots to turn left heading 180, as he was intending to have them vector so they can lose altitude and have a more standard approach. But clearly the pilots seemed to think they could descend at such a fast rate.
We don’t yet know what caused such a steep descent, and also don’t know why the pilots decided to follow through with it rather than taking the vectors.
For what it’s worth, this was an experienced crew, in particular the captain — the captain had over 15,000 hours, while the first officer had over 3,000 hours.
The landing gear wasn’t lowered during the first approach
A PIA spokesperson has confirmed that the landing gear was not fully lowered prior to the first approach. We don’t know if it was partially lowered or just wasn’t lowered at all, and I’m sure the investigation will determine this. Generally speaking an alarm would go off if you’re at a low altitude without the gear extended (in the ATC audio above we hear some alarms going off, though I’m not sure what they’re for).
The crew didn’t communicate any emergency to air traffic control during the first approach, which would typically be standard if there was a known gear issue.
The plane’s engines made contact with the runway
For whatever reason, the plane’s engines made contact with the runway during that first approach (which turned into a go around). We know this because:
- There are scrape marks on the runway, between 4,500 and 7,000 feet (that’s nearly half a mile)
- A picture allegedly taken of the plane after the first go around shows dark marks along the bottom of the engines, towards the back
— JACDEC (@JacdecNew) May 24, 2020
Allegedly #PK8303 final minute images before it crashed in a Karachi suburb. The Ram Air Turbine (RAM) is deployed. White puffs of smoke can be seen coming from the engine as well as dark marks on both engine undersides. @PlaneSpottersPK pic.twitter.com/AtR8M3u1U2
— JACDEC (@JacdecNew) May 22, 2020
Those are the facts we know, but what we don’t know is:
- What happened that caused the engines to impact the ground? If there was a gear problem, why did the crew get so close to touching down?
- Was this an actual attempted belly landing, even though that intent wasn’t communicated to air traffic control?
- How did the plane have enough power to get airborne again after engines scraped the runway for up to 2,500 feet, which would cause a massive amount of friction?
- Engines were “lost” after the first go around, but what exactly caused that?
There were two survivors on the flight
When you see the wreckage of the crash it’s hard to imagine there would be any survivors, but there were.
The survivors were seated in seat 1C (in the first row, near the exit) and in seat 10C (also an emergency exit row).
CCTV footage that has since been released shows the plane descending rapidly with a nose-up attitude, so it’s not surprising that any survivors would be near the exits towards the front of the plane.
We’ll have to wait for the full investigation to see what happened, though I do find the above details to be interesting. The most surprising detail is that the plane’s engines both scraped the ground during the first go around attempt.
The big question revolves around why that happened — why did the plane have an unusual approach the first time around, what was going on with the gear etc.
With time I’m sure all of these things will be determined…
(Featured image courtesy of Anna Zvereva)