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Saudi touched down at Tambaram

Sunday, Aug 30, 2020 12:15 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Aug 30, 2020 06:41 [IST]

Saudi touched down at Tambaram

It was endless hours in the afternoon shift. The Day-Flying had already been packed up by then for the day. They were in the Ops Room awaiting final call from the Tower and looked out on the beautiful twilight of Chennai. The conical windsocks in red and white were dancing that resembles a giant sock with wind direction. Meteorologist - the sky watchers kept careful watch on the lookout for cloud. The samosa with chutney and garam chai went perfectly well. Suddenly an object had been detected by the Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR) screen displaying a message on computer. There swooped an aircraft downward towards airstrip.No sooner ATC Tambaram called up ATC Chennai,ittried to contact the aircraft but all efforts went in vain.
On2nd June, 1997, a Boeing 747 of Saudi Arabian Airline wanted to land at Chennai Airport. Incidentally theradar was not operational on that fateful day. ATC placed the Saudi in a holding pattern making ovular circle for landing. Very shortly theyfound no clue, wondering the aircraft missing from Flight Information Region (FIR).Since the weather was fine,the Captain Khayat sought approach for visual clearance. The pilot avoidednavigational instrument as he had seenthe runway physically. He sighted 05 of Air Force Tambaram strip instead of 07 of Chennai and started descending towards threshold for touchdown. Air Force Controller got panicked and fired four red cartridges in the air, signalling the refusal of permission. The pilot either didn’t see or simply ignored. He ran out of time before he got through another attempt to take off and had to continue approach. While it touched down, the pilot realised a grave mistakeat seeing the shorter runway from cockpit but prompted enough to jam the brakes to saves lives of 330 passengers and 17 aircrews. It blown four tyres and finally had a stunning escapes to halt at the edge of the runway, barely 100 metres from the huddle of ATC.
Landing is one of the toughest jobs of flying. Every airfield is unique and international flights are unfamiliar with the local area and thereby face mayhem task. Some rely on what they see out the cockpit rather than instruments and charts.Interestingly  Chennai (IATA –MAA, ICAO - VOMM) and Tambaram (ICAO - VOTX) are parted by 6 nautical miles aerial distance with itscoordinated geographical location (Latitude-Longitude)13°4’N 80°17’E and 12°55’N80°6’E respectively.Pilots often confused as both have anothersame runway numbering 12-30(expressed as 120°-300°, Navigators use ordeal directionnorth as 360°). It was a nerve racking experience for Air Force Tambaram while the fully loaded 747 came down on 4,700 feet runway instead of 10,000 feet of Chennai.
The baseput on high alert and it sealed off the runway, cordoned the aircraft including passengers. It was such a situation like Hollywood movies but all too real. Air force woken up by the emergency state with a huge jet landed without any emergency and permission. Commandostook out loaded guns from the armoury and cocked its weapons ready for firing. The passengers had no clue while waiting five hours insidethe aircraft on tarmac but complained for switching off the air-conditioning. They only learnt the miracle when they were safely evacuated. Sabotage was ruled out after the talk withDGCA and Civil Aviation. But the aircraft tucked up 4 days as the runway is very short to fly again. It was like the warrior Abhimanyu (Saudi Arabian Airline Boeing 747) got trapped inside the invincible Chakravyuh (Airstrip 05) in the battle of Kurukshetra (Tambaram Base) by Dronacharya (Air Force Commando).And the plane stuck after landing at wrong airport.
The mission deemed impossible how to get the aircraft out.  Should itbe broken for scrap or towing down onroad to Chennai?Finally it stripped bare to be lightened,removinginteriors, air-conditioner andeven empting fuel to cruise fora few nautical miles. On 4thdayat 1648Z,the Boeing-trained Commander Captain Jam Joomperformed a near miracleafter 3 and 1/2 hours of waiting for favourable wind, when he steered the huge plane off the tarmac after running the shortest distance for 3960 feet, where a jumbo jet requires at least 8000 feet strip space for take-off. The incident cost the airlines a boatload of Saudi Riyal 1.16 million for landing and parking charges. It was just a tentative fine but the damages are far higher as the entire runway, taxiways, ramps andlights faced severe damage. And the big bird had finally flown shattering ATC glass pane spontaneously. After 9 minutes it finally landed in Chennai.

(The writer is a former Air Warrior)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi