With 130 passengers on board, it was bound from the southern tip of India to Dubai across the ocean. And despite the audible and obvious collision, the pilot apparently saw no reason not to continue on.
“We informed the pilot about the hit,” the airport director told the IANS news service. “The pilot said nothing was wrong with the plane as the systems were functioning normally. But we found some parts of the plane, like an antenna, on the ground.”
Air India Express flight 611 continued to climb above the cloud line. It crossed the subcontinent and headed out over the Indian Ocean, the pilot apparently unaware that the plane had a gash along its belly and mesh fencing wrapped around the landing gear.
It flew for about two hours before someone in ground control second-guessed the pilot’s confidence.
Eight years earlier, another Boeing 737 flown by Air India had been returning from Dubai when it crashed in Mangalore, exploded and killed 158 people. The government has lately been trying to sell the debt-laden airline, as air travel booms in India despite episodic concerns over safety. Less than a month ago, dozens of people on a Jet Airways flight out of Mumbai bled from their faces because crew forgot to pressurize the cabin.
Flight 611 was about halfway to Dubai when it turned around and headed back to India in what the airline would later call “a precautionary measure.”
The plane landed in Mumbai about four hours after takeoff, according to Air India’s statement. The passengers — all apparently uninjured — were routed onto other flights, and crew began to inspect the plane.
As seen in photos published by Indian journalists, the exterior casing along the bottom of the 737′s fuselage had been torn open like a flesh wound. Scrapes, dings, exposed framework and broken bits covered the plane’s underside.
“It’s a miracle it flew and a miracle that there were no casualties,” NDTV anchor Vishnu Som remarked on Twitter.
The pilot and co-pilot have been taken off the roster pending a review, according to the airline.
The country’s minister of commerce, industry and civil aviation, Suresh Prabhu, said he has ordered a third-party investigation into “various safety aspects” at Air India.
He has also tightened oversight of all the country’s airlines in light of the incident.
“We will take all that’s required to put safety on top of aviation agenda,” Prabhu wrote. “Growth can’t be at the expense of safety.”