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World

AFP
March 14, 2018

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Nepal probes deadly air crash after runway confusion

KATHMANDU: Recordings show apparent confusion between the pilot and air traffic control over the runway approach moments before a plane crash-landed at Kathmandu airport, experts said on Tuesday as Nepal began investigating its deadliest aviation accident in decades.

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Aviation authorities said they had recovered the flight data recorder from the charred wreckage of the plane, which burst into flames after ploughing into a football field near Kathmandu airport on Monday killing 49 people.

Witnesses have described how the US-Bangla Airways plane carrying 71 people abruptly changed direction moments before it crashed. On Monday the airline’s chief executive Imran Asif said there had been a "fumble from the control tower" as the plane approached the airport’s single runway.

But airport manager Raj Kumar Chhetri told AFP it was too early to say what had caused the mountainous country’s deadliest crash since 1992. "It is yet to be identified whether the pilot or air traffic control was wrong," he said, adding the investigation would be carried out with Bangladesh.

Recordings of the conversation between air traffic control and the pilot appear to indicate confusion over which end of Kathmandu airport’s runway the plane was to approach. Air traffic control can initially be heard clearing the plane to land from the southern approach.

"You are going towards runway 20," the controller is heard saying seconds later, referring to the northern end of the tarmac. A series of confused messages follow just before the crash in which the pilot says they will land at "runway 20" and then "runway 02" -- the southern end.

"There is certainly considerable confusion from air traffic as to which runway the aircraft actually wants to land on," said Britain-based aviation expert Andrew Blackie, who has reviewed the recordings.

Survivors told AFP the pilot gave no warning to passengers as the plane abruptly changed direction just before the crash. "I had asked the air hostess, what is happening, is everything fine? She gave a thumbs up, but I could see she was panicking," said Ashish Ranjit, 35, who escaped through a window on the plane’s right.

"It was so low and it took such sharp turns." The plane hit the runway and skidded through an airport fence, leaving a trail of fuel and coming to a stop in a field where it burst into flames. Twenty-two passengers -- mostly sitting on the plane’s right side -- managed to free themselves from burning wreckage by climbing through the plane’s windows or were pulled from the fuselage by passengers and rescuers.

Kathmandu airport lies in a narrow bowl-shaped valley with the Himalayas to the north, making it a notoriously challenging place to land. Kathmandu’s skies have also become increasingly crowded in recent years as air travel has boomed, but investment in critical infrastructure has lagged.

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