MANGALORE, India – An Air India Express plane trying to land Saturday at a tricky hilltop airport in southern India overshot the runway, crashed over a cliff and burst into flames with 166 people on board, officials said. Only eight survived.
Dense black smoke billowed from the wreckage of the flaming Boeing 737-800 aircraft in a hilly area with thick grass and trees just outside Mangalore's Bajpe airport.
Firefighters sprayed water and foam on the plane as others struggled to find survivors. An Associated Press photo showed two rescuers running up a hill carrying a young girl covered in foam to waiting medics. The child's fate was not immediately known.
The plane, traveling from Dubai, was carrying 160 passengers — all Indian — and six crew members, Air India official Anup Srivastava said. Four infants and 19 other children were among the passengers. The British pilot and Indian co-pilot were among the dead.
Workers pulled scores of burned bodies from the blackened tangle of aircraft cables, twisted metal, charred trees and mud at the crash site. Many of the dead were strapped into their seats, their bodies burned beyond recognition.
Relatives of the victims, who had come to the airport to meet them, stood near the wreckage weeping.
"This is a major calamity," V.S. Acharya, home minister for the state of Karnataka, told CNN-IBN.
Ummer Farook Mohammed, a survivor who suffered burns on his face and hands, said it felt like a tire burst after the plane landed.
"There was a loud bang, and the plane caught fire," he said.
"The plane shook with vibrations and split into two," G.K. Pradeep, another survivor, told CNN-IBN television. He jumped out of the aircraft with four others into a pit, he said.
The plane had a small fire at first, but then a large explosion set off a bigger blaze, he said.
By Saturday afternoon, rescuers had pulled 146 bodies from the wreckage. Eight other passengers had been rescued and were being treated in hospitals, the airline said.
Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said that conversations with the cockpit and other records showed the flight was operating normally before the touchdown.
Air India runs cheap flights under the Air India Express banner to Dubai and other Middle Eastern destinations where millions of Indian expatriate workers are employed.
The crash was the deadliest in India since the November 1996 midair collision between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane near New Delhi that killed 349 people.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences and promised compensation for the families of the victims. Boeing said it was sending a team to aid in the investigation.
The crash took place about 6 a.m. when the plane tried to land at Bajpe, about 19 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Mangalore, and overshot the runway, said Srivastava, the official with the financially struggling Indian ational carrier.
Scores of villagers scrambled over the hilly terrain to reach the wreckage, and began aiding in the rescue operation. Pre-monsoon rains over the past two days caused low visibility in the area, officials said.
Officials differed on whether it was raining at the time of the crash.
At Dubai International Airport, a special room was set up to assist relatives and friends of the passengers at Terminal 2, a hub for many budget and small airlines.
The Mangalore airport's location, on a plateau surrounded by hills, made it difficult for the firefighters to reach the scene of the crash, officials said. Aviation experts said Bajpe's "tabletop" runway, which ends in a valley, makes a bad crash inevitable when a plane does not stop in time.
"If the pilot overshoots the runway, the aircraft will be in trouble," said Asif, an aviation expert who uses one name.
Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the plane's pilot, a British citizen, had more than 10,000 hours of flying experience, including 26 landings at Mangalore. The Indian co-pilot had more than 3,750 hours of experience and 66 landings at Mangalore, he said.
External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said the Mangalore runway had a reputation for being difficult.
"Our worst fears have come true," he told the Press Trust of India.
Accidents of this type, known as "runway excursions," are fairly common, though the majority end without injury or damage.
The International Civil Aviation Organization and pilots' groups have urged airports worldwide to construct 300 meter (yard)-long safety extensions at the end of each runway for extra protection.
Older airports in congested neighborhoods with little room for extensions are advised to install soft ground layers — known as arrestor beds — to slow planes, much as escape ramps on highways can stop trucks when their brakes fail.
The 8,000-foot (2,430-meter) Mangalore runway had a short spillover area of about 300 feet (90 meters) with a bed of sand designed to halt or slow a plane that overshoots, Patel said.
"Obviously, the aircraft was at a higher speed," he said.
More than 32,000 landings had been made on the runway since it opened in 2006, officials said.
The crash came as the national carrier tries to weather serious financial difficulties.
In February, the government approved a $173 million cash infusion for the airline, which has suffered decades of mismanagement and underinvestment.
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