On board Shaheen Air: Emergency exit, anyone?

Published: May 8, 2012
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The plane made a crash landing, it was leaking fuel and had sparks flying out of its engine. PHOTO: IMRAN KHAN

I recently had to make an official trip from Islamabad to Karachi and Shaheen Air turned out to be the only option given my meeting schedule. My misgivings about travelling on Shaheen (given its bad reputation) were further fuelled by news of the Bhoja Air crash near Rawalpindi – an incident that had happened only two days ago, in which all 121 passengers as well as crew members had lost their lives.

With these worries on my mind, I boarded the Shaheen Air flight NL122, a Boeing 737 (same as the crashed Bhoja aircraft), on the morning of April 22, 2012. To the pilot’s credit, the journey went quite smoothly. Maybe it was because of the Bhoja tragedy that the pilot was being extra cautious in keeping the passengers calm. Every minor turbulence was followed by an announcement declaring it as expected and assuring the passengers that there was no need to worry.

Everything was going well until we landed at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi; as soon as the plane touched the runway, its left tyre burst with a loud explosion. The landing from that point on was basically being carried out with the left engine serving as a tyre. It was then that I took the following photographs. I will explain each as we move along.

Hats off to the pilot for keeping the plane on the runway and bringing it to a screeching halt.

While the passengers were still trying to figure out what had happened, the stewardess did the regular landing announcement. Believe it or not, she told us the local time as well as the temperature and asked us to make sure that we take our hand luggage with us! However, not a single word was uttered about the situation that we were in.

To top it off, she came out into the main cabin and dismissively announced:

Kuch bhi nahi hua.

(Nothing happened)

However, right outside our windows we could see ambulances and fire brigade engines coming towards us.

As a fellow passenger later informed us, the engine was letting out sparks and flames during its contact with the runway. Media reports corroborated that and The Express Tribune reported the following on the emergency response to this incident:

Embers that sparked from the rims were extinguished with the help of water

But this “extinguishing” with the help of “water” was not as simple as just that. Before I give the details of what exactly happened, it is important to note that on April 14, 2012 – only eight days before this incident – there was a full scale emergency exercise that was carried out on the Karachi International Airport. The apparent “success” of that exercise was truly put in perspective after what we went through.

In any case, here is what I saw:

First came the fire brigade; fancy fire engines that looked like they had come straight out of some Hollywood movie. The firemen, decked in protective gear, also pretty much looked the part. But then came the fire hose and guess what?

It simply didn’t work.

First one fireman was struggling with the hose,

Soon he was joined by another one but still nothing happened.

Even the third one didn’t make a difference. But then, horror of all horrors, the leaking fuel spread out to the extent that it became visible from the plane as encircled in the pictures below

I am no aviation emergency expert, but when a plane has made a crash landing, is leaking fuel and has sparks flying out of its engine, to me that is a justification for the necessity of emergency doors and those annoying emergency exit instructions at the beginning of every flight.

But instead of calling for an emergency exit, the pilot had us sit on this ticking time bomb, while his staff insisted that we have a drink and remain “calm”; because the pilot believed that everything was under control.

One explanation that I heard for this absurd behaviour was that Shaheen Air might have tainted their image if they had used the emergency exit to disembark. The supposed incentive of both the pilot and his employer was in giving a modicum of normalcy to an otherwise chaotic situation.

I don’t know whether this is just a conspiracy theory or an accurate description of the reason behind this madness, but if it’s the latter then the lives of those 172 passengers and six crew members were being put in danger for the sake of some marketing leverage.

In any case, we were waiting for a staircase and a fellow passenger told me later that he had called the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), asking for the expedited delivery of a staircase for our plane. However, the response from the other end was that since the plane belonged to Shaheen Air, the call should also be made to them, thank you very much.

By that point the passengers had had enough fizzy drinks and had started to get agitated. A gentleman sitting behind me got so restless that he got up and pulled out the emergency door.

This action was met by a severe reprimand from the air steward, who as a result faced double the hostility from the passengers. However, even after the steward backed off, no one tried making an exit from this door; probably because this was the troubled side of the plane, and that the fire hoses had finally started working.

From the moment our plane stopped on the runway, it took almost half an hour for the staircase to finally arrive, after which a slow exit began. During that time a passenger had fainted and the trauma faced by the children was evident from their faces.

It was only when we stepped outside did we get an idea of the scale of the accident.

Here is a news report on the incident.

Given the Bhoja Air tragedy, this was yet another carnage waiting to happen. From the clearance of the plane and take off, to the faulty fire hoses and a pilot who didn’t know the meaning of an emergency exit, this whole experience represented a mockery of the norms of aviation conduct. It also highlighted the value that was placed on the lives of 178 ordinary Pakistanis.

The sad part is that we most definitely should expect the same negligence in the coming days, as much worse has happened before this incident. As always the death of the next 121 can also be accredited to the will of God.

This post originally appeared here.

Read more by Imran here, or follow him on Twitter @iopyne

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.