Pakistani Officials Blame Distracted Pilots Discussing COVID-19 For Recent Plane Crash

Pakistan’s aviation minister also revealed that 40 percent of pilots in the country have fake flying credentials.
June 25, 2020, 11:23am
Pakistani Officials Blame Pilots Discussing The Coronavirus For Recent Plane Crash
Security personnel stand beside the wreckage of a plane at the site after a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft crashed in a residential area days before, in Karachi on May 24, 2020. Photo courtesy of Asif Hassan / AFP

An initial investigation of the cause behind the plane crash in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi last month suggests that the pilots were distracted by fear of the novel coronavirus.

The Pakistan International Airline (PIA) plane crashed in a residential part of Karachi on May 22, killing 98 people. Both pilots were killed in the crash; only two of the plane’s passengers survived.

Among the dead were three people who happened to be in the neighbourhood where the crash happened, including a 12-year-old girl. It also damaged 29 houses.

Addressing a National Assembly in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on June 24, Pakistan’s aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said that in their final moments, the two pilots were talking about coronavirus while trying to land, despite disconnecting the plane’s autopilot mode. “The pilot and co-pilot were not focused and throughout they were having a conversation about corona,” Khan said in his statement. “The [virus] was on their minds. Their families were affected and they were having a discussion about it.”

The accident occured after the plane’s engines failed as it approached Karachi airport for a second landing attempt.

The crash investigation team, which included officials from the French government and the aviation industry, pored over cockpit data and voice recorders to arrive at this conclusion. A detailed report is expected to be released by the end of the year.

The plane was reportedly flying at twice the altitude it should have been while approaching the runway. The pilots were apparently so caught up in their conversation, they repeatedly ignored warnings from the air traffic control that they were flying too high, and shouldn’t land.

They also failed to lower their landing gear, which caused the engines to “scrub” against the runway, damaging them. The plane crashed later, when pilots made a go-around to attempt a second landing.

The preliminary report also points out discrepancies in communication between the pilots and air traffic control. "Several warnings and alerts such as over-speed, landing gear not down and ground proximity alerts, were disregarded," the report stated. Air traffic control allegedly saw the plane’s engines spark up on the runway, but didn’t inform the pilots.

Minister Khan said that the plane’s pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, was “very experienced.” The report added that the Captain and First Officer were adequately qualified.

However, the minister also brought up the questionable credentials of pilots in Pakistan, revealing that 40 percent of Pakistani pilots had fake licenses. Last year, a report found that 262 pilots of Pakistan’s 860 active pilots had cheated their way to flying licenses or created fake ones. This list also included an unspecified number of PIA pilots.

The crash took place just a few days after Pakistan opened its aviation industry for commercial flying, despite a surging number of COVID-19 cases.

The plane in question had been grounded for 46 days and reportedly had no technical flaws, leading investigators to classify the accident as a “human error.”

There have been 8 fatal plane crashes between 1965 and 2020 in Pakistan. The most casualties reported were in 2010, when an Airbus flying in from Karachi crashed into a hill, and killed all 152 passengers onboard.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.