DEFENCE NOTES

DISASTROUS COLLISION OF
PAF C-130 AIRCRAFT

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Air Marshal (Retd) AYAZ AHMAD KHAN

examines the ill-fated collision of PAF C-130

aircraft on the ground at Chaklala

Aircraft collisions in the air or on the ground turn into immediate disasters because the JP-4 fuel filled jets are like fuel bombs which explode instantly on impact. The collision on Thursday September 10 between the C-130 aircraft with burning brakes and the parked C-130 at PAF base Chaklala caused immediate flashfire because the propellers of running engines ripped through the JP-4 filled wings of the parked aircraft. Foam spray by ten fire tenders could not stop the blazing fire. Both the aircraft are complete write-offs. The pilot of the ill fated C-130 was unable to stop his aircraft in time from ramming into the standing C-130 because of failed brakes or panic and fear after being informed by the Chaklala air traffic control that his wheels/brakes were on fire, has yet to be established by the board of inquiry ordered by the Chief of the Air Staff PAF. In this unfortunate and unexpected calamity five highly experienced Pakistan Air Force officers were needlessly killed, and four technicians were injured. Chief Warrant Officer Riasat is in a critical state. The two C-130 aircraft were burnt to cinders. The loss of two experienced transport pilots and three highly qualified aircraft engineers cannot be redeemed. Precious lives lost are not recoverable. And the personal tragedies suffered are heart breaking. Squadron Leaders Nadim Kasim and Sohail have left behind grieving young widows and one small son each. Flight Lieutenant Amir Rana was the only son of his parents. He was to be married in three months time. His parents and three sisters are in deep grief. Flying Officer Bilal was the beloved son of Brigadier Afreen of 2nd Punjab. His loss is unbearable for his father and mother. Wife and children of Master Wrt Officer Khalid cannot reconcile to his sudden death. One can only pray and console the wives, children and parents that it was Gods will and that must be accepted. These valiant sons of Pakistan have died in the service of their country. May God bless their souls, and give courage to their near and dear ones to bear their loss with fortitude.

With each C-130 priced at $50 million, the loss to the national exchequer is to the tune of one hundered million dollars. The destruction of two C-130 transport aircraft is a major loss for the Pakistan Air Force. With the loss of two C-130 aircraft out of the transport fleet of twelve the aircargo-troop lift capability of the PAF has been reduced by one sixth. Besides with the US sanctions slammed it is impossible to find replacements in the short term. Even if replacements were available cash strapped Pakistan cannot spare funds to purchase two C-130 aircraft. This is a grievous loss at a time when the Indian Army is concentrated in strength along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, and could restart massive artillery bombardment followed by tactical hot pursuit operations into Azad Kashmir territory. Air transported logistics and para-dropped reinforcements would be required in some sectors to forestall Indian aggression. This vital capability has been reduced by this disturbing collision. This is a painful loss of very precious pilots, engineers and expensive aircraft, because neither can be replaced in the foreseeable future.

According to the PAF handout, Five crewmen died while another four were injured when a Pakistan Air Force C-130 went out of control and hit a parked C-130 at the PAF Chaklala base. This C-130 was returning to the parking area, but it went out of control when a fire broke out in its brake system. With failed brakes the aircraft could not be stopped and hit another C-130 parked on the tarmac. Both aircraft caught fire and sustained major damage. Air Chief Marshal Pervaiz Mehdi Qureshi who was on an official visit to Spain had ordered a board of inquiry to investigate the cause of this accident.” While the findings of the board of inquiry are awaited by an anxious public, several press reports provide evidence that this disaster was avoidable. It was caused by apparent lapses which must be looked into by the PAF board of inquiry. Besides many fictitious stories published by some newspapers could trigger rumours. These should be corrected by stating the truth. The report that brake failure was caused by defective surface of the secondary runway at Chaklala on which the taxi test was being carried is preposterous. This far fetched delusion of some fertile brain must be firmly rejected. That a PAF lady air traffic control officer panicked and was paralysed into inaction is a lie. In fact she immediately informed her superior, the DATCO, who informed the pilot of the fire. The pilot acknowledged, but could not stop his aircraft from ramming into another parked C-130.

Aircraft brakes if not properly adjusted after repair could heat up after heavy or fast landings. Taxi tests are not considered hazardous and are carried out routinely on fighter and transport aircraft after installation of new brake discspads, or adjustment of brakes after maintenance. Complacency could set in when a test is considered routine and easy. As the aircraft was being given a taxying test which could include some high speed runs for checking out the brakes, brake heating could occur. In extreme cases the overheated brakes could start smoking and in very rare cases fire could occur from leaking or ruptured hydraulic pipes in the wheel well area. One report suggests that the brakes fire was seen by a security guard, who reported the matter to the Civil Aviation Authority Control Tower. The fact is that the duty lady air traffic control officer who is a flying officer was informed on the walkie talkie by a ground technician. An Apron Management Officer (AMO) of CAA also managed to warn the ATCO of C-130 tyre fire. The senior DATCO-a PAF Flight Lieutenant (Duty Air Traffic Control Officer) warned Squadron Leader Nadim Kasim the aircraft caption immediately. Squadron Leader acknowledged the warning message, and must have tried to stop the aircraft. One report wrongly suggests that the crew on board was suffocated from smoke, and was semi-unconscious at the time of the collision. The story of brake failure consequent to the fire needs to be fully established by the technical inquiry. On the face of it, the fire occurred from loss of hydraulic fluid from some leaking hose or pipe. And this caused brake failure at the time of impact.

The heavy lift C-130 has extremely powerful and fool proof brake system. The aircraft is designed for short landings on rough terrain and cannot suffer from brake failure or brake fire even after application of harsh braking after landings even on small strips. Brake failure is rare and is almost impossible because of the powerful reverse thrust engines of C-130 aircraft. At full power the reverse thrust is 66% of full forward thrust. It could stop a slow taxying aircraft almost immediately.

The brake fire was detected too late. It was not detected by responsible officials before the aircraft entered the apron i.e. the parking area. It was perchance that it was detected by a technician and by an AMO. This reveals unforgivable organizational lapse. Chaklala is not only the PAF Transport Aircraft Base, it is also an international airport. At the Islamabad International Airport all air traffic facilities should be of international standard, including the expertise of air traffic, flight safety, fire fighting and airport security officials and personnel. Reportedly no civil air traffic controllers are assigned to help PAF air traffic controllers. That a PAF C-130 aircraft entered through the civil aircraft Bravo entry and taxied in with its brakes system on fire through the passenger aircraft apron and collided and exploded in the nearby PAF parking area has fully exposed the state of negligence prevalent at the Islamabad International Airport and at PAF base Chaklala. That two members of lower staff were running along and frantically pointing to the fire on the afflicted aircraft and reported the matter to the DATCO is commendable. But the fire should have been noted by a vigilant air/ground traffic supervisor before the aircrafts entry into the civil/PAF apron-parking areas. The warning to the pilot that his wheels were on fire came too late. And what are the arrangements at the Islamabad International Airport to detect undercarriage down and locked of approaching aircraft and possible malfunctions i.e. fuel leaks before take-off and smoking brakes or tyre fires after aircraft lands? It appears that these essential flight safety and ground safety arrangements are missing altogether. Some organization has to take the blame for such serious lapses. During the aircraft taxi test procedure there should be a mobile control supervisor-specialist who should be accompanied by a foam fire tender, to attend to brake heating or break fire emergencies. At PAF fighter bases runway mobile controller” are positioned at the take-off/approach end of the runway to monitor fuel leaks, undercarriages locked firmly down etc. before landings. Such and better flight-ground safety measures must be introduced at all civil and military airports in Pakistan.

C-130 aircraft have been flying with the PAF since 1963 i.e. for the last thirty five (35) years and their flight safety record is outstanding, and this is a tribute to aircraft engineers and technicians of this fine service. In the two wars with India they were used not only for transport, logistic, paradrop and cargo support, but were modified and employed for carpet bombing operations. The dedication courage and bravery of PAFs transport crew in peace and war has been conspicuous and exemplary. It is therefore painful not only for the transport Wing but for the entire PAF that inspite of their devotion to the Service and loyalty to the country such an unexpected, serious and devastating accident could occur, with such grievous loss of precious lives and expensive aircraft. The PAF board of inquiry should probe into the cause of this accident to establish responsibility, and recommend foolproof measures to avoid recurrence in the future.

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