On board Shaheen Air: Emergency exit, anyone?

Published: May 8, 2012

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.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Pugnate Noman Ansari

    Sorry, my last comment was inspired by the “Where do you urinate if there is no lavatory?” video blog. Recommend

  • SaQiB

    I really hope we Pakistanis don’t start using the donkey-carts again since all other means of transport are under threats of closure………….Recommend

  • http://www.danishmughal.com Danish

    So finally his epic blog post made it to Tribune! Doom Shaheen Doom!Recommend

  • THE

    @Imran: Thanks for sharing this incident in detail. I hope no one has to travel with any of these shaddy airlines in the future. I have travelled with Airblue once from Dubai to Karachi and promised myself that I would never travel with any private Pakistani airline in the future. I hope you are taking legal action against the airline. You and the rest of the passengers of this flight should have filed a case against the airline for putting your lives in danger.Recommend

  • Faysal

    Great work, well articulated.The mishap pushed you into writing this blog but you have the potentials of a great writer. You need to be more regular in contributing to these blogs. Recommend

  • What the…?

    No wonder the business train business is booming –_Recommend

  • Yuri Kondratyuk

    All this would have easily made into a script for a very funny movie (like Airplane!) but for the fact that this is for realRecommend

  • Hiba Fazl

    Its a shame where this is all heading. I think its not only the Airline to blamed but also the Aviation Authority. After all, these planes are flying because they have been given so called flight clearance from CAA. So the problem is much wider than one private airline. We have no safety standards as far as air travel is concerned and its becoming more and more dangerous and risky as the day passes. I think the next big aliment amongst the air-travelling class in Pakistan is going to be flight-fright! Recommend

  • Assad

    tire blow up happens frequently in aviations and the there are various reasons which could be either hitting some sharp object during touch down poor tires and tire pressure. If the tire was indeed poor and not maintained CAA should have seen the maintenance log of the aircraft and could have taken desire actions.

    While seeing the picture I’m glad that Shaheen has upgraded rather bought better models of 737 than those defunct B-737-100/200. Recommend

  • Sane

    Don’t worry another airline shall come soon. That is the ‘reason’ for such creepy flights?!!!!Recommend

  • munchkin bob

    in the last image the running ticker is quite amusing if once can comprehend. all the blame goes to “beyrooni quwaatein/taaqatein”. our own competency is outstanding when the hose pipe doesn’t work and the man holding it probably appears more awe-struck like he never have expected this. praise the lord for creating a man in Pakistan holding such an expectation …Recommend

  • A. Khan

    Contrary to what is written in article, Shaheen Air flies 737-400 which is a different variant and a much newer model than Bhoja Air’s 737-200.

    One reason for not allowing emergency exit, that I can think of, is that emergency chutes cost tens of thousands of dollars. Once deployed, it cannot be folded up and reused. Perhaps Shaheen Air management can clarify if their crew have instructions on not deploying emergency chutes even in minor (we can debate minor) emergency situations.

    Another fact is that so many incidents happening all together in a short span of time cannot be a coincidence. Unfortunately, our dud agency CAA cannot be trusted to get to the bottom of what actually happened specially if it points to laxity on their part.Recommend

  • gt

    It is shocking that ONE invisible, microscopic SPARK could set off an uncontrollable explosion from which no passenger would escape alive. That spark could come even from the firemen dragging hoses over a dry, hot runway on a Karachi summer afternoon, when the pavement temperature can reach more than 70C.

    Is everyone in charge quite insane or does no one heed any international norms any more? Why does IK or other politicos not loudly condemn these acts of neglect? Why not the CJ, so active in pursuing those with a bottle or two of alcohol? Where is the sense of priorities? Is there not need of exemplary punishment to create a sense of deterrence?

    Where are the Generals and the ISI who constantly intervene in so many civil affairs, but cannot control these industrialists and give them a private word of warning? What does it cost them to pick up a telephone and say, “This is a red line that must not be crossed”. So simple, and I am sure that the Faujis do this for a hundred other things. So why not here? Even their own relatives must be traveling by air quite often!

    This whole affair is so callous, so utterly indifferent to the lives of the passengers that it is just unbelievable. Everywhere, a plane coming in for a compromised landing makes the whole airport go crazy with emergency activity, not like this, “arre chalta hai” attitude. Karachi is not the boondocks, it is the premier city and economic hub of Pakistan, not the abode of circus clowns dressed up as emergency personnel! The chain of command of the emergency services should be cashiered or severely punished. Soon, international airlines organizations will embargo flights to and from Pakistan, and then people will cry, they are targeting us for XYZ reasons. Not true. You see why right before your eyes. This is very serious. Wake up.Recommend

  • sajjad

    Its a sad reality that all airlines in Pakistan are putting lives of passengers in danger. If anyone recalls bhoja was forced to shut down because they failed to comply with safety procedures.The airline was recycling tyres which were retreaded locally. As far as i know aircraft tyres need to be replaced frequently because the impact on landing is massive and they lose resistance and traction very quickly. A retreaded tyre is so risky because the plane can skid off the runway and turn into a fireball ( we all know how combustible jet fuel is). secondly we are still using some of those planes which are not allowed in european skies and are depreciated to the extent that their spares are not available in the market. This means that if a part malfunctions, the airline cant replace it and prob gets it repaired. what is scarier is that we keep hearing how bankrupt PIA is and you never know if they are cutting corners and compromising on safety and standards to save some money. I hope i never have to travel by any paki airlineRecommend

  • Parvez

    Excellent pictures and very effective writing.
    The level of training and professionalism displayed by all in our airline industry especially those responsible for regulations and safety appears to be at an all time low. Recommend

  • http://Www.workinprogress.com Mo Baba

    I have not laffed so hard in a very very long time! The pics are hilarious and comic timing is incredible. However, we can not take away the seriousness of the matter and the tragedy that could have been. Oof, when will we wake up and stop taking this cr–.Recommend

  • Shabbir

    Very well documented! What a scary comedy we live in!Recommend

  • Citizen

    Kuddos for this piece . shaheen air lines >>> DOOMED !Recommend

  • Mirza

    I appreciate the comments and emotions expressed by the author who actually expierienced the incident. Surely his views are best customer (passenger) feed back for the aviation industry.
    I would like to add some points.
    1) The fire vehicles and ambulance responded immediately on watching the unusual landing. Pic 2 clearly show the responding fire vehicles and ambulance.
    2) The broken landing gear and engine skided on the runway surface and there were sparks due to friction but initially no smoke or fire was observed. None of the pic show the flame or smoke.
    3) Fire hose were laid out and firemen were stand by to operate foam/water any time. This was described as there were not water coming out of hose. Obviously they would not blindly throw water without signs of fire/smoke. When fuel spilled from wing, foam was sprayed on it to elimiate the chances of ignition. Pics clearly show the layers of foam solution (mixture of water and foam chemical) which isused to cover the spilled fuel (or fire).
    4) Pics and article describes the quick and timely response and actions taken by the airport fire services so we should appreciate the work done by them.

    I can imagine the situation inside plane after such kind of landing incident. Surely, Incidents occur due some machine or human or procedural errors and we should identify and high light the flaws in safety. Again good performances deserve appreciation too.Recommend

  • Ali Nazir

    Why did you use distortion in the last 2 pictures ?Recommend

  • http://mezaajedeen.blogspot.com Deen Sheikh

    I was there at Jinnah Airport that day, thanks to this little incident, my EK flight to Dubai along wiht half a dozen othr international flights were cancelled or delayed 10+ hours, Oh God the hororr, over dose of time at Jinnah airport, i am glad to hear that all you Shaheen passengers finally managed to get ut and go home safetly, our CAA is incompetent they let planes land in bad weather resulting in the deaths of 100+ people twice in recent memory, and this little accident showed that CAA is ill equipped to handle relatively smaller emergencies.Recommend

  • gt


    Mirzaji, you are generally the sanest, most rational poster on almost every issue, but on this you may have erred on the side of your own tehzeeb without thinking over the facts and the gravity of the errors committed.

    When there is an emergency landing, usually there is PRE-EMPTIVE foam already being applied, or similar pre-emptive measures being attempted by emergency personnel in concert with the distressed landing as far as feasible. You know as well as anyone that an aircraft is highly flammable, and waiting for fuel to become visible as a leak is absurd! There is more to emergency procedures than laypeople than you or I can know, and it is for an INTERNATIONAL BOARD from several countries, e.g. NTSB/USA, Boeing, Airbus, and others to make a frank assessment of what went wrong or right with this situation: who all were to blame, and who did their jobs well.

    We should demand several such independent reports, like amici curiae [friends of the court], so that no suspicion of bias can be entertained, e.g Airbus will have no reason to give clean chit to Boeing, Shaheen, Karachi Airport, etc. Only on that basis, should we draw any firm conclusions. And we should demand speedy reports, i.e. in 1 month or less. Passengers can go to an international court of law if necessary in a class action suit.Recommend

  • Farhan

    I am not sure that just cost of deploying emergency chute would stop Shaheen from disembarking passengers. In the A380 Qantas engine explosion as well, no one was allowed to disembark the plane until all the fuel outside plane was foamed to stop catching fire. Passengers rushing out of plane while fuel is spread around is a recepie for disaster. Pilot did not have authority to evacuate the plane while it was on ground and surrounded by firemen. In such cases decision authority goes to the fire chiefRecommend

  • Nadir

    So are any ex-Air Force heads going to roll at CAA? NOT!!!Recommend

  • Hameed

    I still remember the picture in an urdu newspaper of an air craft tyre being repaired at a puncture shop near star gate. That was Bhoja btw.

    I can assure you guy things arent any better at PIA. They work on Jugaro basis. Travel at your own riskRecommend

  • Hameed

    First rule of aviation fire fighting is you do not use water to douse an aircraft fire as the jet kerso floats and spreads on water. You only use foam and other chemicalsRecommend

  • ather Qureshi

    Gents, it is a norm to start blaming all and Sundry that our Media has learnt over the last few years with the inception of private channels. Do you not think that the Pilot did a good job in controlling the plane after a tyre burst? If a metal is rubbing the Tarmac obviously sparks will be emitted, not flowers, right? I can see some fuel leaking but not in very large quantity, even if it were in large quantity, would it be safe for the passengers to disembark thru emergency exits very near to the fuel and alleged danger? obviously the decision to keep the passengers inside the plane till a proper disembarkation arrangement is made was right (Though I agree it should not take half an hour). And what do we expect the flight attendent to tell the passangers ” that we are in great danger and everyone should jump out of the plane”? Will this make the passangers calm? C’mon we should also appreciate what the crew did in these circumstances. We just want to jump onto the Band wagon criticizing everyone. Pleas ethink again and ask ourselves, are we our comments right? Despite all the failures it is our country and we need to improve it with positive criticism.Recommend

  • ather Qureshi

    Gt as we have the tridition of diverging away from the subject, kindly advise why the generals and especially ISI are being dragged in your esteemed comments? there is a Democratically elected President, the most popular in History of Pakistan, running the show at his will. please gather courage to question him!Recommend

  • gt

    @ather Qureshi:
    Since you challenge me, I beg to diifer. The president & co. including parliament are mere figureheads, and it shows in every way, including his foreign policy initiatives. If the GOP had power, why cannot it get the military, ISI etc. to pay their electricity bills? This is a matter of simple legality, and also propriety, and should have nothing to do with who the President is. Yes or No? It is a matter of obeying the LAWS of Pakistan! Since they do not, it means that they are above the law, and they are MORE powerful than the LEGAL AUTHORITIES, i.e. the EXECUTIVE.

    The real power and those who actually run the run the country are not unknown to even the deliberately obtuse, perverse or stupid such as you are determined to prove yourself. Since the moderators have allowed your completely OFF-TOPIC comment to appear, I hope that to be fair, they will allow my rebuttal to appear as well.

    I completely stand by my point that the real power centers of the country are the judiciary and the military. This is apparent by their activities. Therefore only they have the mechanisms available to threaten, coerce or discipline errant elites who run airlines.Recommend

  • Imad

    @ gt, your comments are uncalled for and biased, you need to study the rules to make a comment. Dragging everyone in this would not serve any good, rather “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. Let the CAA do the investigation, Boeing will automatically be included in it as the aircraft was theirs. There is a reason why aircraft investigations run up into months, The investigators are trained aviation experts who look into maintenance and operations records of aircraft and airline procedures, that is not a day or week job, it is a normal procedure.

    It is a norm in the aviation business to be extra cautious when lives are at stake, it is one of the industry that fast learns from its mistakes, may it be through NTSB or AIB or CAA or any other investigative agency of the world, the norms are applied across the industry.

    The role of pilot here needs to be applauded in the first phase, he saved the plane from disaster, but his decision for external help to evacuate the passengers post landing is mind boggling.
    In such a situation when the sparks have emanated due to friction, and without any visible knowledge of extent of damage to the plane, with prior knowledge that the wings are filled with fuel, the passengers should be evacuated from the emergency doors. In this case if the port side (left side) was damaged, the evacuation could v been done from the starboard side (right side), and the front doors of the port side as well,fore side of the engine.

    The ground staff was poor in its response, sparks in the aircraft don’t need to be visible for the firemen to open up hoses, they are sprayed to keep the unexpected from happening. Secondly emergency door procedures are enacted by the air hostesses in every air line so their reluctance in operating them needs to be questioned.

    rest assured this incidence will be investigated according to aviation rules as the aircraft is Boeing’s and their reputation is at stake internationally, but the question remains, if the recommendations that come out of it will be implemented in Pakistan or not. The judiciary can jump in to enforce the rules if they are not implemented according to recommendations by the investigation team.Recommend