AIR INDIA CRASH: TABLETOP RUNWAY EXPLAINED

Tabletop runways often create a lot of speculation when it comes to civilian plane crashes. In any case of a plane crash, the cause of the crash is highly debated – whether human error or technical fault. Such runaways add more spice to the debate since they are difficult to deal with.

The crash on 7th August 2020 (Friday) with 190 people on board is the second major crash that involves a tabletop runway in the aviation industry in a decade (the Mangalore crash in 2010).

A Boeing-737 overshot the runway of the Calicut International Airport near Kozhikode on Friday and fell down a 35 feet slope splitting into half. The Air India Express flight was bound from Dubai, repatriating Indians stranded there due to the pandemic.

As per officials, the plane tried to land amid heavy rain and skidded off the runway ending up crashing nose-first into the valley.

WHAT IS A TABLETOP RUNWAY?

Tabletop runways have a steep end at both sides as they are made by cutting out and levelling the peaks of the hill to create a flat patch of land. One can find such kinds of runways mostly in mountainous areas (due to scarcity of flat land) and low lying areas (due to the fear of water-log and space is hard to find).

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Such runways are considerably shorter than normal runaways, for instance, the Kozhikode airport is approximately a little more than half of the runaway at Delhi Airport. Kozhikode runway is around 2,700 metres (8,858 feet) long and the runway of Delhi Airport is 4,430 metres (14,534 feet) in length.

TABLETOP RUNWAY
Source: Business Insider

WHY IS A TABLETOP RUNWAY RISKY?

It is extra difficult for the pilots to land on such runaways since there is an increased chance of injuries and fatalities if the plane overshoots the runway because of the deep gorges at both ends. Often the runway line with the mountain edges and horizon create an illusion which hides the dropping end and makes one feel that the runway is nearer which is another reason that makes tabletop runways risky.

Accurate landing – hitting the exact mark at the right time becomes of great importance and tabletop runways are often challenging for even the best pilots. A pilot in Air India Ltd stated: “if visibility is poor and there are tailwinds, landing on a tabletop airport becomes a challenge”.

Five airports in India have tabletop runways – Khozikode (Kerela), Mangalore (Karnataka), Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), Lengpui (Mizoram) and Pakyong (Sikkim).

DGCA certifies certain airfields as ‘critical airfields’ which require the flight crew to have a special qualification to operate in such areas. Several factors like the terrain, weather, length of the runway etc help classify the airfields. Around 11 airfields have been classified as ‘critical airfields’ which includes the runways at Lengpui, Mangalore and Kozhikode along with additional airfields.


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