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India Crash Brings Attention To Dated Air Traffic System

By Barry Bearak
Los Angeles Times
NEW DELHI, India

The how and why of the world's worst midair collision is as yet unexplained, but Wednesday critics were eager to say I told you so, making India's air traffic system appear more like a mortal game of dodge ball.

The flight recorders of the doomed planes, which collided over India Tuesday, have now been recovered. Transcripts show the crew of the Kazakh aircraft had been warned of an oncoming Saudi jumbo jet.

Nevertheless, air traffic controllers said the collision could have been avoided if their jobs were not hampered by outdated equipment.

"In the days of satellites and cell phones, sometimes it seems we don't have the tools to communicate at all," complained Brijendra Sekhar, president of the controllers' guild.

Tuesday's crash of the Saudi 747-100 and the Kazakh cargo plane killed 349 people. Sekhar claimed that the New Delhi airport needed a more sensible approach to safety: separate flight paths for arrivals and departures, and up-to-date radar gear that is the standard in most nations.

Indian pilots agree about what they consider to be the scary nature of the nation's skies. "Transponders need to be installed at all our airports," said V.K. Bhalla, regional president of the Indian Commercial Pilots' Assn. "This equipment is used all over the world. It gives controllers exceptionally accurate data about altitude, direction, and speed. With that in place, it makes the chance of a midair collision practically nil."

Some foreign pilots say they have had no problems flying in India. Others, however, refer to the airspace here as "the black hole" and bemoan the low quality of information they receive from controllers. In the past five years, as India has liberalized its economy, air traffic has increased fivefold.

Wednesday, as faint past criticisms suddenly became a noisy chorus, government officials defended their guidance systems.

"Whatever air traffic did was absolutely right," said Yogesh Chandra, India's top civilian aviation official. He added that upgraded equipment is already being put in place.

Transcripts from the flight recorders show that controllers warned the pilot of the incoming Kazakh plane about the outgoing Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747 approaching through the clouds. The Saudi plane was supposed to be at 14,000 feet, the Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin IL-76 at 15,000.

Apparently, either because of pilot error or an equipment failure, the two planes found themselves at the same altitude.

"It was not a head-on collision," Chandra said. "Probably, their wings touched each other. The cockpit and fuselage of the Kazakh airliner was found intact."