As I reflect on that fateful day, 15 years ago today, in which the deadliest mid-air collision in history occurred in the sky of Charkhi Dadri in Haryana, India, I remember how it felt when I first heard the news of the accident on the radio back home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. On November 12, 1996, Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 763, a 747-100B flying from New Delhi, India to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, collided with Kazakhstan Airlines flight 1907, an IL-76 flying from Shymkent, Kazakhstan to New Delhi.
November 12, 1996 started out as an uneventful day. After returning home from school, I had lunch with my family, after which we tuned in to MBC FM on the radio to hear the latest news. The news of the accident was the first headline in the news: "A Saudi Arabian Airlines plane was involved in a mid-air collision near New-Delhi, India". It was hard for me to believe what I was hearing, as I had never imagined at the time that Saudi Arabian Airlines would be involved in a fatal accident, let alone one that would involve a 747. When I learned soon afterwards in the different TV news broadcasts that the SV aircraft involved in the accident was a 747, it made me realize the gravity of the disaster, as I imagined that the plane must have been full of Indian expatriates who were coming to Saudi Arabia for work.
There was a lot of sadness throughout much of Jeddah in the days that followed the accident, as a lot of people in town had known the crew members of SV 763; Captain Khaled Al-Shubaily, the captain of the ill-fated flight, was especially well-known and respected among a lot of Jeddah's citizens, which is due in part to the fact that he served as a pilot in SV for a long time, making him well-known among SV's pilot community. A cousin of mine, who is a captain in SV, had known Captain Al-Shubaily personally. I have an Arabic book about aircraft accidents and incidents that is called A Pilot's Encounters, which is written by Anas Al-Qawz, a retired SV captain; the book's opening chapter is titled Fate in the Sky, and it describes this accident and its subsequent investigation in detail. Part of the chapter includes an emotional account from Captain Al-Shubaily's older brother who was in Sharjah, UAE at the time of the accident; upon hearing about the accident, he called SV's flight operations office in Jeddah, which confirmed to him that his brother was the captain of the flight. He then flew from Sharjah to New Delhi, and then he went straight to the wreckage of the 747. It was on the third day after the accident that he was able to find his brother's body, as described in this translated excerpt from the book:
"And as Captain Al-Shubaily's brother was witnessing the tragedy by looking around the scattered burnt remains of the aircraft, one of the workers who were lifting the wreckage from the remains of the front and middle of the aircraft shouted, saying: "There are some bodily remains at the bottom.. Here under the aircraft.", and he pointed with his hand to the area that was between the burnt wings. People pushed forth from every direction to remove the cables and metal panels with difficulty to find the remains of the flight deck, which was not recognizable anymore as a flight deck, and it was very difficult to remove what was left of the flight crew members' bodies which were buried in the ground at a depth of around 5 meters.
The Captain's older brother says: "I saw my brother and I recognized him from the airline badge on his chest and the epaulettes on his shoulders and some of his official papers that were in his chest pocket. The injuries that he suffered concealed most of his body's features, but I saw something strange when I cleaned him: his skin was very white unlike his natural brown complexion that I know, and he was still bleeding pure red blood… Yes he was still bleeding, and we were in the third day after the accident. May God have mercy on them all and may God gather us with them in the blissful heavens."
According to the investigation of the accident, the main cause of the accident had been determined to be the fault of the captain of K4 1907, who had descended from the ATC assigned altitude of 15,000 feet to around 14,000 feet, due to a lack of English language skills on the part of the Kazakh aircraft's pilots. This put K4 1907 on a collision course with SV 763, which was assigned by ATC to 14,000 feet. The investigation determined that had the Kazakh IL-76 maintained its altitude in the seconds before impact, it was likely that it could have passed under the Saudi 747; moments before impact, the radio operator of K4 1907 notified the captain that they were flying at the wrong altitude, and the captain gave orders for full throttle, which made the IL-76 initiate a climb, sealing the fate of all the 349 souls on board K4 1907 and SV 763: inside a cloud, the tail of the IL-76 clipped the left wing of the 747, severing both parts off their respective planes. The captain of a USAF C-141B Starlifter which was flying into New Delhi at the time of the crash witnessed the two burning aircraft diving downwards towards the ground.
In the wake of the accident, SV made it mandatory that all aircraft in the fleet would be equipped with TCAS, as the 747-100B involved in the accident, HZ-AIH, was not equipped with TCAS. These days, every aircraft in SV's fleet is equipped with TCAS. SV has not had any fatal accident since this disaster, and by now the 747-100B fleet has been retired. Currently, SV operates to DEL with 777-200ERs.
At the time of the accident, DEL was equipped with only one air corridor for in-bound and out-bound traffic, and after the accident more air corridors were opened at the airport for improved separation of air traffic. Even though it took more than two years after the accident, a modern air traffic control system that includes secondary radar was installed at DEL which displays the flight number, altitude and heading of all flights arriving and departing from the airport, as the older system didn't display the altitude information of flights that are displayed in the radar scopes. Since the new radar system was installed and the new corridors opened, there hasn't been a fatal accident at DEL.
Miditech, an Indian film and television production company, produced a documentary about this accident titled "Head On - AirCrash", which contains detailed insights into the accident as well as touching stories from family members of some of the Indian passengers of SV 763. Cineflix produced an episode of Air Crash Investigation titled "Head On Collision" about this accident which is also insightful and contains plenty of details about the subsequent investigation.
I hope that the lessons learned from this accident would help to prevent mid-air collisions in the future, as near-miss incidents are a reminder that proper separation between aircraft must always be a priority for both pilots and air traffic controllers.
May all the people who perished in the Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision rest in peace.
[Edited 2011-11-12 20:01:30]