Stacked against pilot: system failure, adverse weather, lack of fuel, no visibility. But AI pilot Rustom Palia pulled off a miracle, saving 370 lives
New Delhi: It was a 9/11 of a different kind. On that day, battling a rare combination of electronic malfunction, adverse weather conditions and lack of fuel, an Air India pilot saved the lives of 370 passengers on board by manually landing the flight at the Newark airport in New Jersey.
The dare act of courage happened on September 11 when Air India’s AI-101 was flying from Delhi to New York.
The flight was suddenly caught in a worse weather, forcing the aircraft to guzzle more fuel. The low fuel restricted its time of flying. And that was when there was a major system failure.
“Auto land is not available. We have multiple instrument failure,” one of the pilots was heard telling air traffic controllers at JFK, according to audio files available on LiveATC.net, a website that archives Air Traffic Control (ATC) radio transmissions.
“No auto-land, no wind shear systems, (no) Auto Speed Brake and the Auxiliary Power Unit is unserviceable as well, low on fuel” pilot Rustom Palia calmly told the ATC setting off panic alarms on the ground.
The major problem was with the Instrument Landing Cluster which automatically guides the precise lining up and descent of an aircraft onto a runway.
This meant that the pilot would have to manually guide the fight to the runway. But there was more trouble. The pilot could not spot the runway due to heavy cloud cover over New York.
The worried, but calm pilot, asked the ATC if there was any nearby airport with clear visibility. That was when he was told to try Newark which had a “better ceiling” — height of the clouds below which the aircraft could be flown so that the pilots could see the runway.
With just a single source radio altimeter functioning, the pilots had to avoid multiple troubles, including a catastrophic collision.
In the end, the flight landed safely at Newark, where emergency crews had been put on stand-by, according to the recording.
“The pilot did a good job by diverting the flight and landing safely,” said an official of the Director General of Civil Aviation. He confirmed that the aviation regulator had begun an investigation. “Our probe will revolve on technical glitches”.
The aircraft was a nine-year-old Boeing 777-300.