In the meantime, the first officer looked after the aircraft. And he did a good job. Twice, when control asked for his position, he even took the trouble to speak softly so as not to disturb the sleep of the blessed.
At 6 o’clock18 in the morning the aircraft was 180 nautical miles from Mangalore with the captain still in the arms of Morpheus. The landing was due in half an hour and the aircraft was still at its 37 000 feet cruising altitude. For the first officer, it was now time to switch over to Mangalore approach frequency: 127.55 Mhz.
Here is the transcription of the conversation with the air controllers:
At 6 hours 02 minutes 48 seconds (First officer): Mangalore control… Express India 812, good morning.
The air controller’s response was immediate. Mangalore is a small airport and it wasn’t exactly the rush hour.
6 hours 02 minutes 50 seconds (Mangalore approach): Express India 812, control, good morning. Go ahead.
6 hours 02 minutes 59 seconds (First officer): Flight level 370, squawking 0544, and approaching IGAMA point… 812. 19
6 hours 03 minutes 02 seconds (Mangalore approach): Express India 812, roger, report IGAMA.
6 hours 03 minutes 05 seconds (First officer): Call you IGAMA, Express India 812.
It was early in the morning… perhaps the controller was tired, too. One can’t help but notice that he wasn’t very reactive. He only had two aircraft to keep an eye on but he nonetheless insisted that Flight 812 call him back when it passed over IGAMA, even though the first officer had just told him that they were almost over it. Actually the Mangalore approach radar had broken down a few days earlier and the man seemed to be at a loss without it.
Nothing happened for… 12 seconds before the first officer called back.
6 hours 03 minutes 17 seconds (First officer): Mangalore, Express 812, position now over IGAMA point, Flight Level 370…
6 hours 03 minutes 20 seconds (Mangalore approach): Express India 812, control… er… Roger
Four minutes went by before there was any further communication with the controller. Only the captain’s snoring left a trace on the flight recorder. No matter, the first officer was working as he wanted and he was probably quite happy with this relative isolation.
Now that the aircraft was approaching its destination, he had to get a weather report of the field. It was the end of May and the weather could turn out to be a problem. Even though the monsoon was due to start in a month’s time, it was already hot and it could rain suddenly.
6 hours 07 minutes 02 seconds (First officer): Mangalore control, Express 812, requesting latest Mangalore weather?
6 hours 07 minutes 06 seconds (Mangalore approach): Express India, Control… Here’s Mangalore 0000 report: wind calm, visibility 6 kilometers… clouds few at 2 000 feet… temperature 27 degrees… dew point 26… and QNH 1006 hectoPascals.
It was dawn. As was often the case at this time of the year, the sun was rising over a grey, hot and humid atmosphere. Despite the early hour, it was already 27 degrees C and that was just the beginning… the local forecast had predicted that it would reach 38 degrees C during the day. And what was all the more surprising was that despite the high temperature, the dew point was 26. This meant that the weather was nearly foggy.21
6 hours 07 minutes 18 seconds (First officer): Understood, 1006 hectopascals and runway 24… and confirm we are identified on radar 812.
6 hours 07 minutes 22 seconds (Mangalore approach): Negative sir, the radar not available.
So now, we have a first officer who is working all by himself in the cockpit, with a captain snoring happily next to him and with the aircraft about to land at one of the most difficult airports in India whose approach radar wasn’t working. Given the circumstances, the crew had to take certain important decisions which should have been dealt with during a briefing made by the captain. Obviously, no such thing had taken place. At first, the first officer was happy to just take in the information.
6 hours 07 minutes 27 seconds (First officer): Er… Roger… Express 812…
You could feel him hesitating. There was nothing impossible about making a no radar approach. There are thousands of airports around the world which don’t have one and which receive aircraft every day. Except that, as we’ve seen, Mangalore isn’t just any airport and that the first officer had to decide all by himself.
One long minute went by… his voice was ill-at-ease when he ended up asking:
6 hours 08 minutes 41 seconds (First officer): Er… Mangalore Control… Express India 812… Er… what kind of approach can we expect for Runway 24 in Mangalore?
This wasn’t an idle question. With no radar assistance, he had to choose the procedure which would enable him to reach the final approach. This sadly wasn’t the kind of problem that the crews raised at Mangalore since they were usually guided by radar.
The answer came back rather dryly.
6 hours 08 minutes 48 seconds (Mangalore approach): ILS – DME arc approach.
6 hours 08 minutes 50 seconds (First officer): Roger, we’re going to make an ILS DME Arc… Express 812… Er… We are ready for the descent.
6 hours 08 minutes 55 seconds (Mangalore approach): Standby… 812.
The first officer maintained therefore his level at 37 000 feet. Another silence in the cockpit punctuated only by the captain’s snoring. A minute later, it was the controller’s turn to ask a question which just showed that he wasn’t really awake either.
6 hours 09 minutes 48 seconds (Mangalore approach): Express India 812, it’s the control… Er… how far are you from IGAMA point? Express India 812…
The first officer was naturally surprised. He’d flown over the IGAMA point just five minutes earlier. He’d announced the fact clearly to the controller who had acknowledged the message.
6 hours 09 minutes 55 seconds (First officer): Express India 812, we’ve already checked IGAMA at 00 h 04.
The controller tried to wriggle out of it so as not to appear to be asking stupid questions.
6 hours 10 minutes 04 seconds (Mangalore control): Er… Yes, well, so report distance flown from IGAMA?
6 hours 10 minutes 14 seconds (First officer): Well… we’re 48 nautical from inbound IGAMA. 22
6 hours 10 minutes 20 seconds (Mangalore control): Control Roger.
A silence, then :
6 hours 11 minutes 05 seconds (Mangalore control): Express India 812, call me for descent when you’re on radial 287 and at 80 nautical miles from MML beacon.
For some unknown reason, the controller was delaying the Boeing’s descent. Was he being over-cautious to make sure it was kept away from other traffic? There were only two aircraft however in his airspace. Not exactly anything to get stressed about, even with a broken down radar system. Moreover the other flight was Air India Express’ Flight 372 which was arriving from Bahrain heading for Calicut (after a stopover in Qatar). 24 It had to descend too, but its flight path didn’t interfere with the first officer’s.
Why didn’t the controller let the Boeing descend? Besides the situation was so unclear that it caused confusion and the message didn’t reach the right person: it was Flight 372’s captain who answered.
6 hours 11 minutes 11 seconds (Flight 372 Captain): Understood Express India 372. We’ll call you on radial 287 for the descent when we’re 80 nautical miles from VOR MML.
Then the controller obviously noticed that he was no longer dealing with the right person and couldn’t stop himself from being irritable.
6 hours 11 minutes 24 seconds (Mangalore control): Negative!! Express India 812, from Mangalore Radar, call me when you’re on radial 287 and 80 nautical miles from MML.
6 hours 11 minutes 25 seconds (First officer): Roger… for your information, we’re already on radial 287 and we’ll call you at 80 nautical miles from MML for descent.
6 hours 11 minutes 39 seconds (Mangalore control): Affirm.
As the Boeing was practically over the required position, it would seem now normal for the controller to clear it to descend. In fact, he didn’t even answer. The outcome of this inexplicable delay turned out to be disastrous. It must be said that, up until now the first officer hadn’t made a single mistake. Even though he was working all by himself, there weren’t any problems with his handling of the radio and the aircraft was right on course. These tasks were not at all beyond Ahluwalia’s capability. All he needed was to be able to start his descent so that he wouldn’t be too high when arriving at Mangalore.
Another five minutes went by; the Boeing maintained 37 000 feet. The grayish mass of the Indian Ocean slipped by rapidly under the wings.
17 National Transportation Safety Board, the American enquiry board in charge of investigations accidents.
18 To understand the text better, the times are now expressed in Mangalore local time.
19 The point, IGAMA, is 203 miles west of Mangalore, in the Indian Ocean.
20 As is the rule in aeronautics, the controller uses GMT. The weather report which he gave was therefore the one that had just been published, 7 minutes earlier.
21 When the atmospheric temperature is the same as the dew point, tiny drops of water in suspension which change into fog. In this story with the parameters 27/26, all that was needed was for the outside temperature to drop by one degree for the visibility to drop radically.
22 55 miles
23 MML Beacon: a VOR/DME beacon near Mangalore. In the original English text, the specialists noticed that the control made another mistake by asking for them to put off until 80 nautical miles, saying “from” instead of “until”.
24 Calicut airport is 112 miles away on the coast south of Mangalore.