From what the initial probe report indicates, a possible reason for Friday’s tragic Bhoja Air crash that killed 127 people was a technical fault.
The report states that the aircraft caught fire mid-air, and most likely exploded before the debris hit the ground.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), however, indicated the contrary. CAA Director General (DG) Nadeem Yousufzai, while talking to the media on Saturday, categorically said that the airfield was visible despite harsh weather and the plane’s captain had been given a green signal for landing.
“After this it was the pilot’s discretion to land or not,” said Yousafzai, indicating that it was not a technical fault but rather the pilot’s indiscretion.
He said that an Airblue flight landed on the same runway two minutes after flight B 213’s crash.
The initial probe report submitted to the ministry of interior said that the plane lost height and came down to 2,000 feet at 300 miles per hour. The pilot informed the central aviation officials he lost control over the aircraft but soon lost contact with the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower at 6:40 pm, after which it crashed.
Some of the witnesses at Hussainabad village, the crash site, also told The Express Tribune that they saw the plane catching fire mid-air.
However, Yousafzai ruled out the possibility of the plane catching fire and exploding in air. After listening to the conversation between the pilot and the control tower and visiting the crash site, Yousafzai suggested “the aircraft hit the ground and bounced off before crashing”. In the face of such contradictions, a CAA official did say the preliminary report was only a starting point and could not be relied upon to fix responsibility entirely. Vital evidence – in the form of that gained from the plane’s Black Box and voice recorder recovered from the crash site – is still to be included and investigated.
“The plane looked like a fire ball descending onto the earth like a meteor,” the official said, quoting the report.
The Koral police station SHO said, “They (investigators) visited today and asked us not to remove the wreckage for two more days,” in order to continue investigations. The bodies, however, have been removed from the crash site.
Refusing to comment on the progress of the inquiry committee headed by Group Capt (retd) Mujahidul Islam, the head of the CAA Safety Investigation Board and a veteran aviation investigator, Yousafzai said the aircraft was flight-worthy regardless of its age.
“CAA experts gave the plane a proper fitness certificate before it took off from Karachi,” he said. “Flight safety is not often linked with a plane’s age. It depends on the suitability for flight.”
Yousafzai added that the CAA was in contact with Bhoja for paying compensation to victims’ families. He said the CAA gave clearance to Bhoja Air to resume services following full payment of its pending dues. However, some CAA officials claimed that certain members of the authority’s high command were not willing to grant the clearance but were pressurised.
Bhoja Air’s CEO Arshad Jalil allegedly used his contacts in government circles to get the clearance. However, there was no on-record confirmation of this information.
Besides positing possible reasons for the crash, the initial report also prompted the Islamabad police to act quickly and book the owner of Bhoja Air, Farooq Bhoja.
The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) appeared to act on this advice promptly, at least partially. The agency detained the airline’s chairman Bhoja for questioning on Saturday. Bhoja dropped a bombshell, however, by telling the authorities that he owns only 5 per cent of the airline’s shares, while 80 per cent of the shares are owned by Jalil, his wife and his son.
Bhoja told investigators that Jalil has previously been MD for defunct airline Aero Asia and was also the CEO of Shaheen Air. He added that Jalil is currently in China with his wife. He said that the remaining 15 per cent of shares are owned equally by directors Zeeshan Karimi and Muzahir Hussain.
On the instructions of the interior ministry, the FIA has registered an inquiry in the Corporate Crime Circle. Sindh FIA Director Moazzam Jah Ansari told Express that the airline’s records and the certification of the aircraft have been taken into custody from his office and are being examined.
PM orders judicial probe
Bhoja seems to be in as much trouble as his airline. A judicial commission was formed by the interior ministry on the directives of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Saturday to probe the crash.
The three-member judicial commission, headed by Justice (retd) Zahid Hussain includes Justice (retd) Wasim Kausar and Justice Naseem Sikandar. The commission will decide whether Bhoja Air will be allowed to continue operations, investigate the aircraft’s track record and chalk out a strategy to prevent such accidents in the future.
President Asif Ali Zardari also summoned the defence minister on Saturday and order that inquiries be made into progress as far as facilitating victims’ families is concerned. (WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SUMERA KHAN IN ISLAMABAD AND ADIL JAWAD IN KARACHI)
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2012.