A321 crash points to bigger problems

Published: July 29, 2010
The site of the Airblue plane crash on July 28, 2010. PHOTO: REUTERS

The site of the Airblue plane crash on July 28, 2010. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Airblue A321 which crashed at Islamabad had a multiple crew, because the passenger jet was to fly from Islamabad to Manchester via Istanbul. The pilot-in-command Capt Pervaiz Iqbal Chaudhry, 62, had joined the airline after his retirement from PIA, following the extension in age utilisation granted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to allow airlines to utilise pilots in case of shortages, subject to medical fitness.

The Airblue aircraft, with 152 passengers and crew onboard, was cleared to land at Islamabad airport’s Runway 30. It was drizzling, with low clouds, however the visibility was over 3,500 metres with clear visual ground contact of over 1,000 feet above ground at the airport, but the wind was reported high.

Three aircraft, including the ill-fated A321, were inbound for Islamabad. Two PIA flights were diverted, but the A321 made a ‘Missed Approach’ at Runway 30, which means instead of deciding against landing at the airport, the pilot executes a ‘Go Around’, which is similar to takeoff with the same high engine power and flaps selection. The procedure for a ‘Missed Approach’ at Runway 30 is to climb straight out and turn, heading 240 at 2.5 nautical miles on the DME with further climb to 9,000 feet.

In this case, for unknown reasons the pilot did not make the mandatory turn and instead continued to fly straight out and hit the Margalla Hills adjacent to Sector F6/1 which is located over six nautical miles from Runway 30, where the ‘Missed Approach’ procedure was made. The A320 FMC system requires the pilot to give a command to the computer to execute a ‘Go Around’, failing which the aircraft will proceed on the last heading selected.

Runway 30 is equipped with the Instrument Landing System Category 1, which has the least facilities, while Category 3 Instrument Landing System can facilitate zero visibility.

A320 is a short to medium range commercial aircraft manufactured by Airbus. It is equipped with digital ‘FLY BY WIRE’ flight control systems, through use of electronic signals instead of mechanical pulleys and hydraulic systems. This ‘Fly by Wire’ A321 was computer-controlled, with an inbuilt flight envelope protection, making it virtually impossible to exceed certain flight parametres, such as G limits, maximum and minimum operating speeds and angle of attack limits. It has a fully integrated EFIS colour display and innovative side stick controllers instead of conventional control columns.

The first A320 flew in 1984 and it was commercially launched in 1988. Airblue had six of this family of aircraft, including A319, A320 and A321. There are over 4,200 A320 family aircraft that have rolled out of the assembly line, with an additional order as of March 2010 for 2,300 more aircraft. Till date there have been 16 crashes. A321 is a stretched version of A320 and the first of this series flew on March 11, 1993.

The A320 family includes A318, A319, A320, A321 as well as ACJ business jet. The Airblue A320 fleet was acquired on a Dry Lease with option to purchase. However, it has been learnt that the airline started having financial problems and was unable to exercise the purchase option. As per contractual obligation Airblue was required to return the aircraft in the condition that they were delivered to it by the leasing company, which Airblue was unable to do. In the meantime the airline had been operating four out of its fleet of six A320 family aircraft. Investigations reveal that due to financial constraints the private airline was cannibalising two of the grounded aircraft for spare parts to keep the other four flying.

This reflects poorly on the CAA, which is supposed to regulate airline operators to ensure maximum safety through strict regulatory supervision of its maintenance records.

The CAA not only regulates airlines but also owns and operates the airports and navigation facilities provided in the country’s airspace. There is a conflict of interest because the CAA is also entrusted with the task of accident investigation, which explains why no investigation report has ever been authenticated internationally, nor has been made public. The matters have been made worse by irregular appointments within the CAA on political pressures or from the air force and military aviation, who neither have the requisite commercial aviation experience, nor the qualifications on type of aircraft in use by commercial airlines. Reports also reveal that corruption within the CAA bureaucracy has led to compromising on flight safety.

Investigations will also track medical records of the captain and his two co-pilots. Their recent flying experience and whether they were meeting the minimum necessary rest requirements prior to operating the flight. There are also restrictions on weekly and monthly flight hours, which airlines and their pilots are required to strictly abide by.

Investigations conducted by this scribe reveal that Capt Pervaiz Iqbal Chaudhry had been grounded about two months back and was admitted to the Aga Khan Hospital. He had uncontrollable diabetes, hypertension and cardiac problems. He was a very religious man and it could be possible that he did not rest well before the flight because of Shab-e-Barat.

Powerful pilot pressure groups enjoying strong political patronage have successfully got the age of utilisation extended beyond 60 years. Recent political appointments in the CAA and PIA have compromised on strict regulatory controls that are required for commercial aviation. It is these compromises and political appointments in the CAA that led to censure and partial banning of aircraft registered in Pakistan from operating into European airspace.

The other contradiction is that Flight Standards Division of the CAA is monopolised by pilots on the payroll of PIA, which results in conflict of interest. This pilot utilisation extension was first extended to 62 years on grounds of shortage of experienced pilots, who already possess the pilot ratings on the type of aircraft they fly. Our mole reports that this problem started when PIA inducted Boeing 777 into its fleet and a particular group of pilots who were flying A310s wanted to be promoted to Boeing 777 instead of on the basis of seniority. The pilot promotion plan was always based on seniority and this would have resulted in the senior-most flying Boeing 747 to be promoted. The former managing director, Chaudhry Ahmed Saeed, was instrumental in accommodating his blue-eyed boys, which led to a shortage on Boeing 747. The ministry of defence was then instrumental to extend the age of utilisation to 62 years, which has now been extended to 65 years.

Unfortunately the quality of medical surveillance available in Pakistan and the fact that properly equipped medical centres with best qualified medical specialists are not available in plenty across the country are ground realities which were ignored and extensions in age utilisation was misused without any regulatory controls. This resulted in overage pilots with existing medical problems to get permission to fly passenger commercial aircraft.

Capt Iqbal Pervaiz Chaudhry had a medical history and yet was granted permission to fly a new aircraft, which he had never flown in his career before, in spite of the fact that age adversely affects reflex action that are required in emergencies, where swift pilot remedial action can avert an accident or lead to an accident.

History of A320 crash

The first crash of an A320 had occurred on June 26, 1988 when an Air France A320 crashed during an air show in Habsheim, France, killing all three people onboard. The crash was blamed on pilot error by Air France, but investigations conducted by Switzerland’s Forensic Evidence and Criminology determined that the crashed plane’s Flight Data Recorder had been substituted. This made the entire investigations controversial. This aircraft had also crashed while executing a ‘Go Around’.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • Imran
    Jul 29, 2010 - 9:45AM

    Pervaiz Iqbal Chaudhry had been grounded about two months back and was admitted to the Aga Khan Hospital. He had uncontrollable diabetes, hypertension and cardiac problems.

    He had poor vision, slow to walk
    This Grandfather need to retire at home
    He was flying in dense Fog and rainRecommend

  • ahmed
    Jul 29, 2010 - 10:02AM

    The pilot’s age and medical conditions should be a cause for concern. It is also obvious that older people have difficulty getting used to modern equipments and computer systems. My father hasn’t learned to operate his mobile phone successfully and has very poor reflexes when operating a computer or his phone. He has recently stopped driving his car because of his deteriorating reflexes and he only happens to be 61 years old. I personally know of pilots who hide their medical conditions so they could continue flying.

    flying a plane is a lot easier now a days but only if there is no emergency. In an emergency, pilots have to make split second decisions in a very complex environment and this is when they have to rely on their deep knowledge about the plane and about flying. The recent Hudson River plane landing is an example of superb decision making when almost everything went horribly wrong in the cockpit.

    Although nothing is clear as investigations are underway but there is obvious laxity shown by CAA by allowing old age pilots to fly. Pilots should be forced to undergo more stringent health checks and should be capable of demonstrating expert level knowledge, promotions should not be done based on seniority alone.

    PS: I did not mean to criticize the deceased pilot, but the CAA which is overly politicized and fails to implement safety measures properly. Recommend

  • Azmat Shah
    Jul 29, 2010 - 10:05AM

    Its good to hear about what happened taking all these factors into account, i am currently training to be a commercial pilot in Australia. And from what i know, PIA pilots who are flying for Air Blue are extremely experienced. these care x PIA and X Airforce pilots. the pilot had a very good idea of what he was flying into and had probably done an ILS approach to Islamabad airport hundreds of times. Its tough to make any judgments about the conditions, as i am sure they were exceedingly testing. The question remains as to why he was not given a diversion to Lahore or to the Islamabad alternate A/D when two a/c’s had been unable to land prior to this. I get the feeling that Islamabad Tower Control had a big role to play in this accident. From my experience flying in Pakistan out of OPKC i can say that ATC controllers are not to great. there is constant chatting going on official channels between pilots and there controllers. about 70% of crashes are due to pilot error. another 10% are due to weather issue, and the remaining are related to technical and mechanical difficulties. i feel this falls into the category of pilot error like most crashes.
    my prayers go out to the families of the lost ones.
    Now let us show some respect to all those in mourning and i can only pray that there is a proper investigation into this accident. so that we as pilots and you as passengers can travel the skies without fear. Recommend

  • Syed Yousaf
    Jul 29, 2010 - 10:16AM

    This is an excellent information for the public to know how safety standards are compromised and how passenger lives are exposed to extreme dangers.

    Hopefully the Prime Minister in all honesty? get the inquiry done and responsible people punished while the CAA immediately attends to its incompatibilities.Recommend

  • Rubina
    Jul 29, 2010 - 10:22AM

    This pilot and airline had no business on flying
    No regard for human life
    Pilot seems was lost as he did not execute the go around commandRecommend

    Jul 29, 2010 - 10:25AM

    As salaam waliakum,
    this is gulnawaz khan mahar from sukkur.
    This crash is one of the most deadliest crash in pakistan avaiation history. First of all we have to see in last minutes before the crash that what had been wrong.perhaps it was caused by whether or by pilot error.
    But as far as i concern i may have caused by pilot error.beyond any doubt he was an expert pilot but “being retired” he should have allowed to fly an air craft in this age,because every work requires hardworking to be done. Pilot’s job isn’t an easy job to do it requires full concentration of pilot and also its very risky job. In pakistan we have no young pilot they don’t get chance to fly big air crafts like boeing and airbus the result is that air crafts are flown by those retire pilots who don’t deserve. If won’t give them(youngsters) chance how’ll we make our country success full.
    Government should train new pilots to avoid such kind of accidents in future. May allah peace and rest their soul ameen.

  • Anonymous
    Jul 29, 2010 - 11:11AM

    Lets not forget that the ‘pilot’ also died. Can we please be honorable muslims and allow his family to grieve a few days before blasting him and his crew in such a way? Investigations must happen and the right steps must be taken but lets grieve for his lost life first. Lets be human first.Recommend

  • Azeem
    Jul 29, 2010 - 11:12AM

    the question is whether the pilot was physically fit to fly. Im not sure of the criteria although I believe some sort of regular physical examination would have been conducted. however one feels that if a person is hospitalized he should be reassessed before getting back in the air.

    Having said that i still believe that the pilot in his 300 plus years of flying must have landed on the Islamabad airport hundreds or thousands of times and if im not mistaken the newer aircraft are easier to fly as compared to others.Recommend

  • Zahid
    Jul 29, 2010 - 11:44AM

    Most of the above comments blame the Pilot. First of all I do not agree that this was pilot’s error due to age factor. The Pakistani Pilots are the best under the sun. The Airbus A-320 had no known technical problem till the day it went down at Margalla Hills. We should wait for the experts report and the Airbus Company’s investigation report. The Black Box is very important which is missing or gone missing after a ticker shown in the TV Channels. Let’s wait for the investigation.Recommend

  • Sara
    Jul 29, 2010 - 12:08PM

    Rather than crtisizing and complaining which we always do why not for a change pray for the departed soul? And please remember that the captain too had a family who is grieving at this hour atleast be sensitive to their sentiments.Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Jul 29, 2010 - 12:21PM

    A lot of what is written in the report and in the comments makes sense and one or more may be possible. However, accept for those with FULL ACCESS to COMPLETE INFORMATION & DATA should not be commenting at this stage. We all make the mistake of speculating based on our own experience, knowledge and sense. But we must realize that this is the time where vested interests profit. Many times a source can be someone who jumps on the opportunity to wrongly build public perception in favour of his or his camp’s cause.

    I was appalled to hear yesterday the PIA spokesman taking the opportunity to speak long against the PIA Pilot’s go slow and how selfish they are and how unfair their demands are. What did it have to do with this crash?

    But to return to my main point, creating speculations within hours leads to bitterness in people with one set of beliefs (influenced by people apparently giving intelligent analysis). And once the report comes out many don’t believe it because of preset beliefs and condemnations.

    We should all save our views until after the official report has been made public in full. If there are questions left unanswered they should then be sought out. Otherwise we are all guilty of poisoning minds of families who are at this point in time emotionally unstable to think rationally and are looking at someone or some company to take their anger out on.

    It is neither fair to the pilot, the company that made the plane and the parts, the people who maintained it and the people who steered it from the ground. It causes shame and stress to wives, children, siblings and parents of pilot and executives being associated with making, maintenance, flying and ground control. Please leave them alone now. They are already mourning inside and will for the rest of their lives irrespective of where the fault was. This was a formal and informal team and it is like losing the final of the world cup. It doesn’t matter who made the mistakes that led to the loss. They all will silently mourn the missed glory for the rest of their lives.

    Mourn the souls of the dead but also respect the hearts of family of those who are being rumored to have contributed.Recommend

  • Saif
    Jul 29, 2010 - 12:21PM

    I see it more as an accident: a thing that occurs in every part of the world. These incidents pose a question, not only to the technological innovations made by humans and their so-called-reliability, but also on the lacking ability of humans to deal with natural incidents.

    Off course, the pilot was over aged, the plane was ill-maintained, and the regulatory authorities were bribed. But, still, plane did carried people in the past, and it still carried them all around from Karachi to outskirts of Islamabad (where it crashed). It should be realized that this is only an incident which has occurred due to the incapability integrated within human beings. Nothing more.

    I am very sad for the victims and their relatives. May Allah grant them peace, and courage to their relatives.Recommend

  • Jul 29, 2010 - 12:21PM

    This is definitly the best review by any Pakistani newspaper of what might have contributed to this unfortunate crash. The Captain I am sure was very expreienced, but than he was well beyond the age of 60 years, when people who do ground jobs in an airline or office jobs retire. Pakistan has specialist medical facilities, but they are very few and not readily available 24 hrs a day and 7 days a week. If pilots in France and Italy are not being allowed to fly passenger aircrafts beyond 60 and 62 years, because that is the considered opinion of their civil aviation regulatory bodies, than I am sure Pakistan CAA should reconsider this age extension, especially to those pilots who have any existing medical conditions. I hope CAA Pakistan does not claim that existing medical facilities and research in Pakistan is better than France or Italy. Problem in Pakistan is that political recommendations overide merit in appointments. The MD of PIA or AIR BLUE, or Shaheen Air should be assessed for their management skills. A pilot with no management professional qualifications has no business to run an airline and make rules in collaboration with CAA to take care of his own employment and that of his colleagues beyond 60 years of age. Airlines that run in loss tend to compromise on maintenance. There is no shortage of pilots in PIA, if you campare the total number employed by that airline to the number of aircrafts it has. The issue is that shortages have been deliberately created on aircrafts that opertae overseas, so that their salaries and allowances increase. What the passenger flight safety needs is an independent and powerful CAA, which has the best qualified expertise available, free from political pressures, so that it can effectively regulate aviation. Capt Chaudhry cannot be blamed solely, for the blame is on both Shahid Khaqan Abbasi the CEO of AIR BLUE and CAA, for allowing him to fly, in case he had a medical problem. Islamabad Airport should have better ILS facilties, and so should other airports. The lobby within the bureaucracy that has deliberately put hurdles in shifting the Islamabad civil airport location share the blame. The existing emergence of housing societies near the new Lahore terminal by the powerful khaki land mafia is another potential threat to flight safety. The CAA has become a welfare body for retired khakis, instead of a professional regulatory body. CAA needs to change and so must the government’s attitude.Recommend

  • Jul 29, 2010 - 1:00PM

    Good assessment, but it is just like singing to a mule. Just does not matter to the VVIPs of Pakistan for they have stopped travelling on PIA or for that matter Air Blue. It is the poor PM of UK with his huge forex reserves who travels by a commercial flight on an official trip to USA. These people dont give a damn, which is why they will allow old aged pilots with acute medical problems to fly passengers. As for PIA the MD has been appointed, by you know whom, for a particular purpose, which surely is not the good of that unfortunate airline, nor for its passengers. The poor hajis fly on aged jumbos flown by aged pilots and inexperienced copilots. Nobody bothers. I hope the media follows this to its logical conclusion and not forget about it in two weeks time, till another accident occurs.Recommend

  • Dee
    Jul 29, 2010 - 2:27PM

    I request everyone to stop being so painfully idiotic in their views. Stop blaming the crew before the actual data from the black box is released. 150 plus people have lost their lives and these idiots are busy debating about the correct procedures, retirement age, personality of the captain….something that they know nothing about. how many of you blamers are actually aware of what aviation rules actually are??? – stop making ridiculous commentsRecommend

  • Nawaz Akram
    Jul 29, 2010 - 2:44PM

    The pilot spent three months in Agha Khan for medical problems, he has heart disease and hypertension and diabetese.

    With all these problems he flys from Turkey to Karachi and then to Islamabad.???

    He was a impaired pilot, two other flights diverted and this impaired pilot decides to land and misses the landing, then he turns the plane toward the hills. He gets a call from the control tower that he is getting away , the pilot responds I know . Then he is told to turn as he will crash in the hills, the pilot responds I can see that.Then the plane crashes.

    Quran states to avoid things we cannot do.

    This pilot was not in the correct sences , he was impaired.
    Not only he took down the plane , he caused the untimely death of 150 young people.

    In USA pilots are not allowed to fl passenger jets after 50.Recommend

  • Ayesha
    Jul 29, 2010 - 2:50PM

    I somehow agree with “Pakistani”. It is a bit too early to comment on the Pilot, airline or the airport staff. And lets not forget event he Pilot has lost his life. And even his family is grieving his death. And they might be reading your comments.

    P.S. Im not his relative.Recommend

  • Mohammad Farhat
    Jul 29, 2010 - 3:16PM

    Nice comments and observation, I belive that under such circumstances, its always the ATC controls who keep full track of situation while its an aborted landing and specially when the aircraft is flying over city so close towards high mountains.
    on such occasion there is always stress in the cockpits and any better level of inputs from the ATC ensures an easy fly back to the airports and runways.
    The captain in question was still close to 64 years old a month back and a week ago, and in many airlines the age is beyound 60, while there is always a much younger pilot who is in the cockpit looking after the affairs as well, so I dont think its the age factor alone towards final blames or just the pilot’s errors, its mostly a combination of circumstances which really leads towards such traggic situations, including the computerization now being such in fashion, plus the ground controls and monitoring staff at the ATC.
    We may never know the exact story, but the real question remains as to why the plane went so low and so much away from its ascribed path, and why did the ATC at ISB kept things so cool, knowing well the plane is getting too close to the mountain areas at such low heights….it really calls for emergency situation at the ATC LEVELS.Recommend

  • Jasmine
    Jul 29, 2010 - 4:11PM

    From what i see the plane system got jammed by the GHQ/nuclear weapons site nearby., thats why the flight data recorder is now “NOT FOUND” while previously it wasRecommend

  • S. Ali Raza
    Jul 29, 2010 - 4:14PM

    Where is the black box? They had it yesterday! what now?Recommend

  • Jul 29, 2010 - 5:04PM

    he may have been fasting as well….Recommend

  • Saif
    Jul 29, 2010 - 5:21PM

    The procedure of interpreting the information from an airplane black box is as follows:

    After the recovery of black box from the wreckage, manufacturers/vendors (i.e. Airfrance/Airbus) will be informed officially to send their representatives.
    Upon their arrival, the black box will be submitted to them and they will encode the information carried within. This is so, because the information (voice/data recording) contained within the memory chips of an airplane black box is in the encrypted form, which can only be decrypted by the manufacturers/vendors.
    This information encoding process is carried out in front of local regulatory authorities, in presence of airline representatives (i.e. CAA and Airblue, respectively).

    Any idea, how much time should it take?? Mine is: almost one week.Recommend

  • Meekal Ahmed
    Jul 29, 2010 - 10:37PM

    A few points:

    1. In the US which has the largest, most complex and well regulated system in civil aviation (at any one time there are 5,500 flights in the air over the continental US), the age limit has been increased to 65. I think there is a caveat about how they are pared with co-pilots (experience, age and so on) but otherwise there are no restrictions. They can fly.

    2. Pilot’s the world over get medical checks every six months. If they fail, they are grounded. It has happened to friends who I went to school with.

    3. Pilots are trained and re-trained on very sophisticated flight simulators every six months. If they fail the sim. check they are re-tested until they pass.

    My point in recounting all this is that age per se is not the issue. The captain of this ill-fated Airbus must have been checked out and declared medically fit. If he was in hospital but cleared his medical then he is fit to fly. I am sure he was also asked to pass his simulator check ride.

    However, since he was flying a completely different aircraft than the ones he flew for 35 years before, there could be some concern there. The transition to a “Glass Cockpit”, side-stick controlled fly-by-wire and all those fancy FMC programming features can be quite tough and a lot of people who transition from the analog-style cockpits (like the 747-200/300) have a hard time and have to be tested again and again. I can only assume he passed all the necessary tests and was cleared as a commander.

    At end of the day, he made a fatal error. I think he lost what is called “situational awareness” which means, bluntly, he did not know where he was. The co-pilot being so much younger than him (roughly half his age) was probably too overwhelmned by this 25,000 flight hour senior captain figure to challenge him. Maybe he did and it was ignored. Only the cockpit voice recorder will tell. I don’t know who was on the radio but if it was the captain then it was the co-pilot doing the flying — or vice versa.

    To those who want to know the truth about this terrible (and needless) tragedy, may I say keep waiting. In 62 years we have never published an air accident report and let the chips fall where they may — including people bringing law suites against the airline, people in the CAA, the aircraft manufacturer or maybe some company which made a particular instrument that was defective and gave a false reading. If there has been criminal negligence I believe people have the right to be compensated for their loss. After all, the concept of blood money is also there in Islam.

    Look at it this way: we don’t know who killed Liaqat Ali Khan, we don’t know what happened in East Pakistan and why, we don’t know whether Bhutto was already dead when they hung him, and we don’t know why Gen. Zia’s VVIP C-130 made a 90 degree nose-down plunge into the ground shortly after take-off. Against that backdrop, don’t expect this or any other government to tell you, its citizens, the truth. It is not part of our tradition.Recommend

  • Asif Nizamani
    Jul 29, 2010 - 11:32PM

    I’d start my reply by quoting SadafFayyaz saying that ‘he may have been fasting as well…’. My friend there is a flying rule which prohibits pilots from fasting while flying. So STOP speculating.

    I request everyone to stop speculating and criticizing the pilot. Rather we should be praying for the departed souls.

    The pilot was flying the plane and had flown from Turkey, this should be enough for us to know that he must have been medically fit to fly. Experienced pilots don’t take unnecessary risks. Pilots first and utmost duty is the safety of the passengers and the plane. So how on earth can one say that the pilot might have deliberately. And for those who are saying that their parent/grandparents can use technology, that’s because they aren’t used to it. A pilot with about 35 years of experience is more then used to with technology and fly-by-wire aircrafts.

    One more thing, after having a missed approach the pilot attempted to land from the other side of the runway called runway 12 and for that he was not supposed to execute a go-around procedure.Recommend

  • Asif Nizamani
    Jul 29, 2010 - 11:54PM

    I’d like to add that can this newspaper support their claims about the health of the pilot by providing his medical health records.

    And provide with the financial information of Airblue, their dry lease contract to acquire the plane.

    Because without all these thing the above report is completely baseless.Recommend

  • Maestro96
    Jul 30, 2010 - 8:31AM

    Another incidence of religion being used in a negative way. Why are we so obsessed with religion?Recommend

  • Pilot 320
    Jul 30, 2010 - 7:40PM

    First of. All I would like to ask all the respectable who wrote hear to know tha they should wait before jumping into conclusions no pilot want to loose his life and he,s passengers the age is not a factor as it’s an international rule now days and has been for a while for above 60 years pilots weather is from gods creation and it can be as strong as the high strong waves of open oeacens for the

    tanker so I advise every one to wait for the results and pray for all the lifes lost in particular the family of the captain and the copilot that have to read some of the curl coments made by no pilotsRecommend

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