Mayday mayday, our daredevil pilot wants to fly through a thunderstorm!

Published: May 16, 2014
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Thousands of flights get cancelled and delayed to due storms. PHOTO: REUTERS

Thai Air may have a very good air worthiness record both for their fleet and the flying staff. Being a Thai Air passenger on several occasions I have had no bad memories until I flew back to Islamabad on March 17th, 2014 from Manila via Bangkok.

Thai Air is probably one of the few foreign airlines that still maintain daily flights from three cities in Pakistan; all western airlines including Singapore Airlines stopped flying into Pakistan for various reasons, almost a decade ago, Thai Air has been providing that necessary bridge to keep Pakistan connected to Asia. By making a code-share agreement with PIA, it dominates the passengers from Pakistan to and fro from Australia, Asia and the pacific.

While having a chat on WhatsApp at the Bangkok airport, my wife in Islamabad informed me there was a thunderstorm predicted in Islamabad around the time my flight was supposed to land. I am sure the pilot of this TG 349 was also aware of the weather report besides the inbuilt weather radar fitted in Airbus 340-300.

Taking off on-time from Bangkok, this was a smooth flight until about 200 miles away from Islamabad when turbulence started. The lightning all around was a clear indication of a strong thunderstorm. Those living in Islamabad and Rawalpindi know how strong these thunderstorms are during spring and pre-spring. The in-flight-live-information-screen predicted our arrival at Islamabad airport 17 minutes earlier than the scheduled time of 10:25pm. It was wrong, the plane landed at about 10:50pm at the Islamabad airport but what happened in those 43 minutes to the passengers of TG 349 was nothing short of a nightmare come to life.

When the plane started its descent towards Islamabad, the pilot informed the passengers about the expected temperature and chances of heavy rainfall in the city. What he probably missed telling us was that it wasn’t normal rain but a strong thunderstorm. Passing through the lightning and heavy clouds in the night, however, probably gave the passengers a fair indication that this landing was not going to be easy, both for them as well as the pilot.

As the plane approached the ground it was over-speeding, was waving around, taking big and small turns both left and right. The plane missed the runway once – it seemed like the pilot could not see the landing strip – which meant we were going to take another turn-around in the thunderstorm-hit-Islamabad. Despite the fact that the pilot could have missed it on the second try again, he continued, only this time, he flew really low over Gulberg, passing over Chak-Shehzad area and headed straight towards the Margalla Hills. This was when the pilot pulled in the landing gear, increased the engine speed and started climbing height.

It was not an easy situation for somebody who had witnessed two fatal air crashes in Islamabad. Both in which the investigators held the pilots responsible.

The two aircrafts that crashed while attempting to land, in bad weather have created ripples in the Pakistan aviation history pages and for the residents of the twin cities in particular – let alone the relatives of the victims who have lost their loved ones. The AirBlue flight 202 that crashed with Margalla hills on July 28th 2010, on a mighty-monsoonal-rainy-morning occurred close to my office. This is one of the reasons I kept following up on stories regarding the crash even months and years later.

A rescue worker searches the wreckage of an Airblue passenger plane which crashed on the outskirts of Islamabad July 28, 2010. Photo: Reuters

The investigation report issued by the Civil Aviation Authority in November 2011 cited a lack of professionalism in the cockpit crew along with poor weather as primary factors of the crash.

Similarly on April 20, 2012, Bhoja Air’s flight BHO 213 departed from Karachi at 5:00pm and was due to land in Islamabad at 06:50pm. The plane crashed only 5.6 km short of its destination, near the village of Hussainabad. All 127 people on board were killed. According to reports, the pilot attempted to land during heavy rain and a thunderstorm. The investigative accounts suggested that the airplane was caught in a strong gush of unexpected wind consequently pushing the plane downwards, towards the ground, resulting in the crash.

Rescue workers search through debris following the crash of a Bhoja Air Boeing 737 plane in the outskirts of Islamabad on April 20, 2012. PHOTO: AFP

And here was a Thai pilot, unfamiliar with Islamabad’s weather and terrain, determined to land the plane. He made another attempt to land, and although he flew frightfully low for the longest few minutes of our lives, we made it! Some of the passengers started clapping, while others started thanking the Lord out loud and the rest, including myself, were still perplexed. It didn’t make sense; why had the pilot put the plane and the lives of over 300 people at risk? No one was judging his flying skills at the time. It wasn’t a challenge he had to prove worthy of. So then why the unnecessary daredevil stunt?

Do aircraft land in thunderstorms? No they don’t, even Yahoo says that!

Suqlain Haider

Suqlain Haider

A development management professional working as a Business Development Vice President for a consulting firm in Islamabad, he tweets as @suqlain_haider (twitter.com/Suqlain_Haider)

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