India plane crash in Mangalore leaves nearly 160 dead

The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder: "It's taken a while for rescue teams to get to the site"

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Nearly 160 people are feared dead after an airliner crashed while landing near the southern Indian city of Mangalore.

Indian officials said there were eight survivors among 160 passengers and six crew on board the Air India Express flight from Dubai.

The Boeing 737 overshot the hilltop runway as it tried to land and burst into flames in a valley beyond.

Indian Aviation Minister Praful Patel said he felt "morally responsible" for the crash, AFP news agency reports.

Survivors said they thought they heard what sounded like a tyre bursting just before the crash.

Speaking to Indian TV from his hospital bed, survivor Umer Farooq said he heard a loud thud as the plane touched down.

"Then the plane veered off toward some trees on the side and then the cabin filled with smoke. I got caught in some cables but managed to scramble out," he said.

Mr Farooq was being treated for burns to his arms, legs, and face.

Difficult access

All the passengers on the flight were Indian nationals, with many returning from jobs in the Gulf to visit their families, says the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder in Delhi. There were up to 20 children on board, our correspondent adds.

Mangalore airport lies on top of a hill with steep drops at the end of each of its two runways. One of the runways was extended in 2006 to accommodate larger planes like the Boeing 737.

ANALYSIS

BBC New Delhi correspondent Sanjoy Majumder

Air India Express is a budget airline and a subsidiary of the national carrier Air India.

This is the first crash in its relatively short history. The plane was no more than three years old.

Air India Express mainly caters to the southern Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka, where this plane crashed, with flights to and from the Gulf, where a large number of Indian nationals work.

India has a relatively good air safety record but in the past decade there has been a rapid growth in the aviation industry.

A number of new airlines have been launched, which has led to a shortage of some experienced crew.

The airline said the plane had overshot the runway as it came into land at about 0600 (0030 GMT) and crashed into a wooded valley.

TV pictures showed rescue workers and local villagers scrambling on steep hillsides to search the smoking wreckage.

A Mangalore police official told the BBC that smoke from the crash site had made it difficult for rescue workers to gain access to the plane.

"As far as the information available with us is concerned, eight persons were rescued and shifted to local hospitals in Mangalore for treatment," Air India official Anup Shrivasta told reporters.

Mr Patel said one person was unharmed, four had minor injuries and three were being treated for major injuries.

One passenger, described as a seven-year-old boy, died on the way to hospital.

Officials said 146 bodies had so far been recovered, some burned beyond recognition.

Warnings

A light, pre-monsoon rain was reported to be falling at the time but the head of the Indian airport authority, VP Agarwal, said visibility was not a problem.

He said the pilot had given no distress call to the control tower.

India map

Local media named the pilot as Serbian Zlatko Glusica. He was said to have 10,000 hours of flying time, including experience of Mangalore's airport.

AFP news agency said Mr Glusica also had British citizenship.

The civil aviation minister said an investigation had been ordered into the crash, and that the flight data and voice "black box" recorders had not been found.

After visiting the scene of the crash, Mr Patel observed that Mangalore airport had a short runway and a limited area after that to accommodate planes that overshot the landing strip.

He said the Air India Express flight had missed its landing threshold by about 2,000 feet (600 metres).

"Because the spill-over area was limited, it went off a cliff," he said.

Mr Patel added that one of the plane's wings had hit a navigational aid near the end of the runway called a localiser and broke off before the rest of the plane plunged into the valley.

There have been cautions before about the position of Mangalore's runways, which analysts say poses challenges for pilots.

A former adviser to the Civil Aviation Ministry said he had given warnings in the past about the airport and said it should not be used by bigger aircraft such as the Boeing 737.

"The problems are there, that if you overshoot, if your brakes fail or if you can't stop the aircraft for any reason, then it will fall and roll over the cliff into the valley with disastrous consequences, and that is what happened today here," said Air Marshal Denzil Keelor.

'I just jumped'

One of the survivors, KP Manikutty, said the landing had at first appeared to be smooth and then the plane had crashed with no warning.

Plane crash survivor: "It caught fire and we fell out"

"Immediately on touching the ground, the aircraft jerked and in a few moments hit something," he said.

"Then it split in the middle and caught fire. I just jumped from the gap," he added.

Air India Express began operations about five years ago as an offshoot of the state-run Air India.

Its Boeing 737-800 jet that crashed was less than three years old.

India's air safety record has been good in the past decade, despite a rapid increase in the number of private airlines and air travel in the country.

The last major crash happened in the city of Patna in July 2000, killing at least 50 people.

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