Indian aviation has witnessed many crashes but the one on 12th November 1996, jolted the entire nation. Saudi Arabian flight 762, and Kazakhstan Airline flight 1907, an Ilyushin IL-76 crashed mid-air. This crash involved 349 fatalities. Today let’s look into the crash and see what happened.
But first, let’s have a look at the background of both the aircraft:
Flight 763 was a Boeing 747-168B of Saudi Arabian Airlines registered as HZ-AIH and had line number 555 and MSN 22748. Its route was from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport to Saudi’s Dhahran International Airport with 289 passengers and 23 crew members on board. On the deck was Captain Khalid Al-Shubaily a 45-year veteran pilot with more than 9,800 flying hours, First Officer Nazir Khan and Flight Engineer Ahmed Edress.
Flight 1907 was an Ilyushin IL-76TD of Kazakhstan Airlines(now Air Kazakhstan) registered as UN-76435 (UN doesn’t involve the United Nations, and now it is changed to UP to circumvent this confusion) and had MSN 1023413428. Its route was from Chimkent Airport of Kazakhstan to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport with 27 passengers and 10 crew onboard. On the deck was Captain Alexender Cherepanov aged 42, who was also an experienced pilot, first officer Ermek Kozhahmetovich, in addition to the pilots, there was a Flight Engineer, a Navigator, and a radio operator.
There was another aircraft in the airspace. It was a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter of USAF, which was in hands of Timothy J. Palace, and he witnessed the crash and described it as “a large cloud with orange grow had lit up.”
According to the investigation, the main cause is described as pilot error due to the language barrier. English is the language used in aviation, i.e. you always communicate in English. But in Russia, the pilots conversed in Russian. On flight 1907, it is believed that only the radio operator knew English and the pilots had trouble understanding it.
On the day of the incident, only primary radar was available in Delhi. This means the controller can only see the location of the aircraft and not the speed and altitude. This played a key role in the incident. The Saudi Arabian Flight 762 was cleared to take off from Indira Gandhi International Airport. At that time only one out of four corridors was given to commercial aircraft. A corridor is an airspace, from which aircraft can pass. Flight 762 was cleared to 14,000 feet or in proper terms (Flight level) FL 140 and was informed about the incoming Flight 1907. Also at that time in Russian Airspace, the pilots spoke Russian and the instruments were in metric or in other words, in Russian Aircrafts the height was measured in Meters and not Feets, and they had a radio operator who used to be a medium of communication between ATC and the pilots. It was tough for the radio operators to see the instruments. This was one of the key reasons for the crash. The incoming Flight 1907 was cleared to FL 150 i.e. 15,000 feet. When the radio operator heard the clearance, he repeated the command. In aviation this is common. But due to the language barrier, pilots thought that they were cleared to FL 140, where the Saudi Arabian 747 was. Now both the aircraft were on a T-bone collision route. When the radio operator told the pilots about the altitude, pilots tried to pull the plane up but was too late. Both the planes collided at about a speed of more than 300 mph. There were no survivors. All 349 people on board died.
During that time TCAS, (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) was not obligatory. TCAS warns you of any traffic in the 1000 feet sphere of your aircraft. Some suggest that if the Kazakh pilots pushed the nose down, they could prevent the collision.
In the aftermath of the crash, TCAS was made mandatory for all aircraft flying in Indian Airspace, and two out of four corridors were cleared for commercial aircraft. Some articles also suggest that directors knew that there will a big crash if they didn’t open a new corridor for commercial aircraft.
The outcome of every incident is learning to prevent it from recurring. After this crash, two corridors were opened for commercial aircraft, so that a mid-air collision can be prevented.
RIP to all 349 souls who departed.
- DGCA report: https://www.dgca.gov.in/digigov-portal/?dynamicPage=dynamicPdf/130614975&mainAccidentReports/500005/0/viewApplicationDtlsReq
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1996_Charkhi_Dadri_mid-air_collision
- Steps taken by ICAO: https://www.icao.int/MID/Documents/2015/IELP%20Workshop/Sustaining%20Language%20Proficiency.pdf
- National News report: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/cover-story/story/19961130-saudi-kazakh-air-collision-boeing-747-crashes-into-il-76-over-indian-skies-killing-351-people-834139-1996-11-30
- COVER IMAGE: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DijhErRLMSQA&psig=AOvVaw3jTb22wIR945sF4cU0Gaov&ust=1622602022689000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCOjRr9y19fACFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD (this video is a detailed visual depiction of the incident)