Collision Averted in Mumbai Between Air India Jetliner, Presidential Helicopter Fleet

A potential disaster appears to have been narrowly avoided at South Asia's busiest airport.  A fleet of VIP helicopters landed at Mumbai's airport just as a domestic commercial airliner was about to take off.

The quick reaction of an Air India pilot prevented what could have been an aviation tragedy.  Flight 866, leaving Mumbai for Delhi with about 150 passengers and crew on board, was taking off when pilot S.S. Kohli saw one of three military VIP helicopters landing in front of his Airbus A-321.

"The chopper came in front which was given a clearance. I was given a take-off clearance. ATC [air traffic control], he didn't have a contact with the chopper," said Kohli.

The helicopter was one of three that were landing at the same time, carrying a group of dignitaries, including Indian President Patibha Patil.

A passenger on the Air India flight, Hitesh Solanki, told reporters at the airport the cockpit crew aborted the takeoff by slamming on the emergency brakes.

"I was praying to God that I am flying and keep me safe.  At that time the pilot applied the emergency brake.  I just came out of my seat and everybody came out from the seat and everybody was seeing here and there what's happening.  Then I saw a chopper was crossing our flight.  Distance was just to near 20 to 25 meters, I think," said Solanki.

No one on any of the four aircraft is reported to have been injured. President Patil was transferred to the government Boeing 747, known as VIP, 1 as planned, and she was flown to her scheduled functions in the state of Gujarat.

Civil aviation authorities and the Defense Ministry quickly ordered official inquiries into the near collision.

Domestic media quote airport officials as saying responsibility lies with Mumbai Air Traffic Control, which had apparently allowed the helicopters to land at the same time and place it had cleared the airliner for takeoff.

Industry officials have warned for years that India suffers from a dangerous shortage of thousands of air traffic controllers and that those in the towers are overworked.

Indian media reports say the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is re-evaluating India's air safety standards and there is a possibility of the country's air-worthiness rating being downgraded because of safety, training and personnel deficiencies.  A downgrade would relegate India into a status along with such countries as Guyana, Indonesia, Serbia and the Ukraine and prevent Indian airlines from expanding service to and from the United States.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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