A runway or an air strip at airports is designed to withstand the weight of massive commercial flights. The first time an attempt was made to land a commercial flight on a highway was in the US by a Southern Airways airplane way back in 1977. It was a desperate attempt at an emergency landing. The result: 63 people on board and 9 people on ground were killed.
Last week, Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport and Highways of India, said the government was looking at a proposal to turn roadways in far-flung villages into runways for planes to land and take off. On the face of it, the idea is fraught with many challenges. And there are more questions than answers: can there be safeguards against accidents of the kind that happend in the US? Can the road take the load of a plane?To be sure, the minister said the roads made of cement and concrete can handle a plane's weight. But so far we have been able to land only a military aircraft successfully on a village tarmac and not a civilian plane. Only last year, it was decided that a part of the Yamuna expressway in Uttar Pradesh will be used as a road runway for fighter jets. That too only during emergency situations when jets are unable to land on an airbase."While the idea of using flat highways in remote locations as part-time runways is fantastic, it needs a reality-check. While emergency landing on highways in case of a war or mechanical failure is fine, doing it for regular commercial flights appears challenging," Amber Dubey, partner and India head of aerospace and defence at global consultancy KPMG told moneycontrol.com. Other challenges are more pressing: a runway needs at least 3 kilometres for the plane to taxi before taking off or coming to a halt. Any electric pole or mobile tower on the stretch will have to be done away with. Also, human traffic has to be down to a minimum on such roads. It explains why Gadkari picked Arunachal Pradesh to be a testing ground for this project as the traffic there is low. There are strict ICAO guidelines on runway design, obstacle analysis, runway lighting, safety distances, aircraft and airport security, says Dubey. Once these are addressed, the government can experiment at 1-2 locations before taking a final call, he said.
Government will have to purchase land in and around the highway to widen the road that can take the wingspan of the plane. Dubey also added that in a country where costly commercial aircraft were damaged last year due to buffaloes and wild boars in airports like Surat and Jabalpur respectively, such a plan requires a thorough analysis from a techno-commercial, regulatory and practicality perspective.