Rescue workers have recovered the dead bodies of more than 100 people from the wreckage of an Airblue passenger plane which crashed in the Margalla Hills in Islamabad at around 10 am on July 28, 2010. 

At least 157 people were on board the ABQ-202, a civil aviation official said. 

The 157 included 151 passengers and six crew members 

Rescue workers arrived at the scene and managed to pull out four injured passengers from under the rubble. Meanwhile, the plane’s black box was also recovered. 

It appears however that the crash took place probably due to a pilot error. The plane was flying from Karachi to Islamabad (flight number was ED202) and landing at the Islamabad Airport when it was asked to circle while another plane was landing. The plane came over Islamabad to circle and hit the Margalla Hills. It is possible that the pilot could not properly calculate his circle or simply hit the hills which were partly covered by the clouds. 

The plane had struck a ridge which fell on the wreckage. 

The pilot of the ill-fated Airblue flight ED202 strayed from the normal landing approach and inexplicably continued flying towards Margalla Hills, leading to the crash.

Preliminary investigations by the aviation authorities have indicated that pilot’s navigational error could be the most likely cause of the crash. But the air traffic control tower’s role has also come under the scanner for failing to warn the pilot that he had veered off the flight path.

“It could be even a combination of both,” a member of the investigation board appointed by the government said and added that technical failure might be another contributing factor.

Capt Pervez Iqbal Chaudhry, the pilot of flight ED202, who was in his mid-sixties, had a lot of flying hours under his belt. But his co-pilot, First Officer Muntajib Chughtai, was new to commercial flying.

Some are also saying that the crash was preceded by Shabarat and the pilot, Mr Chaudhry, had been up all night, worshipping. It is also being said that he was told not to land in Islamabad due to bad weather and divert to Lahore but he declined saying that he was tired. The latter may be untrue as several flights landed around the same time in Islamabad.

The aircraft, Airbus A321, had started its landing approach for Runway 30, one of the two runways at the Islamabad airport, but because of wind direction the pilot had to turn right for ‘circling’ the jet towards Runway 12 — something normal for flights landing in Islamabad during monsoon.

As the plane started preparations for landing on Runway 12 it had descended to about 2,500 feet and was flying parallel to the runway over Islamabad highway.

The pilot was attempting visual landing at Runway 12 because the instrument-assisted landing is available only on Runway 30. Visual landing entails eye contact with the runway.

Pilots said the mandatory conditions for ‘a circling approach’ are to keep a minimum altitude of 2,500 feet; remain within 2-3 miles of the runway; and maintain a visual contact with the airstrip at all times.

Aviation experts opined that the aircraft’s altitude was correct, but the pilot could have faulted on the other two conditions as he continued his ‘dormant flight’ and flew much farther than the mandated distance from the runway. The best option, in such a case, they said, could have been ‘to go round’ and make a fresh attempt for landing.

There were some indications that the pilot had made a belated effort to ‘pull up’, but probably it was too late.

The air traffic controllers noted that the pilot of ED202 was going for an unusual ‘wider approach’ beyond the allowed course and had failed to take the final ‘base turn’ towards left, approximately over Faizabad interchange, they advised two other aircraft, belonging to Shaheen Air and PIA, which were positioning themselves behind the doomed plane for landing at Islamabad airport, to slow down.

But the question remains that why wasn’t Capt Chaudhry alerted by the tower that he was going out of range and getting too close to the hills that are about 10 nautical miles away from the airport. The pilot had flown at least six miles beyond the minima for the circling approach.

The radar had noticed the deviation and had warned the traffic controllers.

“Probably there was a communication breakdown,” one of the controllers assumed, but wasn’t sure about the actual cause of the failure.

The plane that crashed at about 9.45am had last contacted the tower at 9.43am.

There were no ‘May Day Calls’ — distress signal — from the pilot either, which an aviation expert said made it a perfect CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) case. CFIT is used to describe an accident in which an airworthy aircraft, under pilot control, is unintentionally flown into the ground, a mountain, water or an obstacle.

The investigators are wondering whether or not the aircraft’s Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) worked.

This may come to light once the plane’s flight data recorder, commonly known as ‘black box’, is recovered and analysed.

But apart from a possible pilot error, there is also a growing body of evidence that a technical malfunction could have led the pilot into navigational error.

The fatal mistake by the pilot in continuing towards Margallas, instead of turning left while circling for Runway 12, was not the first. The aircraft had during its descent into Islamabad airport strayed into Kahuta area but was corrected by the control tower. The pilot had then switched over to the navigational system — Flight Management System — instead of utilising the radar facility.

Although the debate on cause of the crash has focussed on inclement weather, experts say it was good enough for landing, even for visual one.

The weather conditions close to the crash site were: wind 050 degrees at 16 knots; visibility at 2,000 metres; cloud base at 1,000 feet; and rain.

The minimum conditions for landing are 500m visibility and cloud base of 500 feet.

A five-member commission to probe the crash. Air Commodore Khawaja Abdul Majid, chief of the Civil Aviation Authority’s safety investigation board, will head the commission.

The Air Blue said that there was no technical fault in the aircraft, putting the crash down to weather. It said that the plane was no more than eight years old and had no known technical problems.

The Pakistan Airline Pilot Association (Palpa) also said that the plane appeared to have strayed off course, possibly because of weather.

Palpa President Captain Sohail Baloch attributed the accident to the pilot’s fatigue. “The pilot may have been suffering from accumulated fatigue because they are not given adequate leaves,” he said, adding that the flight route was not a no-fly zone, as was being speculated.

The plane probably exceeded the safety distance because of bad weather and the pilot might not have determined an appropriate landing route.

The airline spokesman said that the aircraft, made in 2000, was leased to the Airblue in January 2006 and it accumulated about 34,000 flight hours during some 13,500 flights.

The airline, which began operations in 2004 with a fleet of Airbus A320 and A321 aircraft, operates six aircraft from its A320 family of short-haul and medium-haul aircraft. The aircraft have a seating capacity of 185.

The Chairman of Airblue, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, is at present in London.

An air traffic controller said “non-functioning” of the GPWS might have been the main reason for the crash. “The GPWS, installed in every plane, is a system that alarms the pilot when the plane descends to a low altitude,” Arif Ali Khan, president of the Air Traffic Controllers Guild, said. 

The Airbus 321 plane that crashed was 10 years old, the planemaker said — an age considered a relatively young for a plane of that type.  

The aircraft was “initially delivered from the production line in 2000,”and leased to Pakistani airline Airblue in 2006, Airbus said in a statement. 

An airliner such as the A321, a single-aisle craft with room for 185 passengers, normally has a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. 

“In line with international convention, Airbus will provide full technical assistance to the authorities in Pakistan, who will be responsible for the investigation into the accident,” Airbus said. 

Here are some details of the type of plane involved. 

DESCRIPTION The A321 is a stretched version of the single-aisle, short- and medium-haul A-320 passenger plane, the most widely sold type of jetliner built by European planemaker Airbus. 

The first A321 went into service in 1994 and the plane involved in the crash was manufactured in 2000. 

The crashed plane had carried out 13,500 flights and accumulated 34,000 flight hours in service, Airbus said. 

The aircraft was leased to Airblue in 2006. 

Aviation industry sources said the plane was leased to Airblue by International Lease Finance Corp, the leasing unit of US insurer AIG. 

Airbus is owned by European aerospace group EADS. 

AIRCRAFT DETAILS  Passenger capacity (standard, 2-class) 185

(high density) 220

Flight crew 2

Length146 feet/44.5 metres

Wingspan111 ft 10 in/34.12 m

Interior cabin width12 ft 1 in/3.7 m

Emergency exits: 8

Range 2,350 nautical miles/4,400 kilometres

Engines Choice of two manufacturers

(The plane involved in the crash had two V2533 engines made by International Aero Engines: see below) 

PRODUCTION  First A321 delivery1994

Number of aircraft produced (as of end-June) 606

Backlog of planes ordered, not yet produced 204

(Airblue has 14 of the sister A320 model on order) 

PRICE List price (million dollars) 95.5 

SAFETY RECORD  The crash is the first fatal incident involving an A321, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit organization which keeps track of global aircraft accidents. 

International Aero Engines is owned by Britain’s Rolls-Royce , United Technologies unit Pratt & Whitney of the United States, Germany’s MTU Aero Engines and a consortium of three Japanese engineering firms. 

The plane was no more than eight years old, and it had no known technical issues. The pilots had not sent any emergency signals. 

Airblue flies within Pakistan as well as internationally to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the United Kingdom. 

The only previous recorded accident for Airblue, a carrier that began flying in 2004, was a tailstrike in May 2008 at Quetta airport by one of the airline’s Airbus 321 jets. There were no casualties and damage was minimal, according to the US-based Aviation Safety Network. 

The airliner began operations in 2004 with a fleet of Airbus A320 and A321 aircraft. 

The plane that crashed was also built by Airbus, the European planemaker said. 

Airblue operates six aircraft from its A320 family of short-haul and medium-haul aircraft seating up to 185 passengers. 

The last major plane crash in Pakistan was in July 2006 when a Fokker F-27 twin-engine aircraft operated by PIA slammed into a wheat field on the outskirts of Multan, killing all 45 people on board.

In August 1989, another PIA Fokker, with 54 people onboard, went down in northern Pakistan on a domestic flight. The plane’s wreckage was never found.

In September 1992, a PIA Airbus A300 crashed into a mountain in Nepal, killing all 167 people on board. Investigators found the plane was flying 1,500 feet lower than it reported as it approached the Katmandu airport.