An Air India Express flight with over 180 passengers on board skidded off the runway while landing at Kerala’s Kozhikode on August 7. The Boeing 737 was travelling from Dubai to Kerala and had landed around 7:40 pm, when it overshot the runway, killing the pilot. Several more have been injured and rescue operations are on at the moment.
The accident has brought the topography of the Calicut International Airport under the scanner once again. It is a tabletop airport, meaning, it is located atop a plateau or a hill. In such airports, usually one end or both ends face a deep gorge. Runways at these airports create an optical illusion making them appear at the same level as the plains below, which necessitates pilots to be extra cautious while landing.
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Tabletop airports are believed to be more prone to accidents. For instance, after the 2010 Mangalore Air crash, experts had deduced that the topography of the Mangalore Airport, which is also a tabletop airport, was what caused the accident.
The DGCA has classified certain airfields as critical which need special qualification for the flight crew to undertake operations. The criteria for classifying airfields as critical are based on various factors such as terrain, length of runway, predominance of inclement weather, etc. There are 11 such airfields in India, which include the tabletop runways of Mangalore, Kozhikode, and Lengpui. As per SOP of Air India Express, three airfields at Mangalore, Kozhikode and Pune qualify as ‘critical airfields’. These airfields are, therefore, cleared for operations by experienced flight crew and take off and landings have to be carried out by PIC only.
An Indian Express report had quoted Air Marshal BN Gokhale and a group of experts investigating the 2010 Mangalore crash as saying: “These airfields require extra skill and caution while carrying out flight operations due to the undulating terrain and constraints of space. The hazard of undershooting and overshooting, in particular, can lead to grave situations.”
Notably, this is not the first flight mishap to have taken place at the Calicut International Airport (or Karipur Airport) either. Only a year ago, Indian aviation regulator DGCA had pointed out several safety concerns after an Air India Express flight coming from Dammam had a tail strike while landing at the airport.
The Calicut Airport Director was served a show-cause notice which had spoken about “cracks at runway 28 TDZ (touchdown zone) and along runway C/L marking at runway 10 TDZ,” among several other concerns.