In a freak accident, an Air India service engineer died after he got sucked into the live engine of an A-319 aircraft at Mumbai airport on Wednesday evening. The engineer, identified as Ravi Subramanium, was in his forties. At the time of going to the press, the body was yet to be recovered from the engine.
The incident took place around 8.30pm when the aircraft which was to operate the Mumbai-Hyderabad AI flight 619 was being pushed back from the parking bay before take off. An aircraft can only move forward and so needs external help to reverse from the parking bay. A tow van is used to push back the aircraft and the process is carried out with an engineer positioned in front of the aircraft nose, so as to be visible to the pilots. The flight was being piloted by a new co-pilot and a seasoned commander A G Sharma. Subramanium, the technician (service engineer), was supervising the push back. "No one knew what happened. All of a sudden we hear that we heard that the technician has been sucked into the engine," said an airline source. A CISF official said "the body has been badly mutilated".
Many of the around 100 passengers who were on the flight are said to have been traumatized by the incident.
In an A-319 aircraft the distance from the nose to the engine is about 30 feet. "When an aircraft is being pushed back, the engine, even when if it has been started is on idle thrust, that's about ten per cent of its total thrust. During taxiing its never more than 35%. Ground staff and technicians know quite well the area that should be kept clear in front of the engines," said an airline official.
Airline sources said that the aircraft's auxillary power unit (APU) was not working and so the engine start-up procedure being followed was not a regular one. When on ground, an APU supplies power to keep the passenger cabin air conditioned, to provide electricity and to start the engines. "But most APUs on AI's narrow-body aircraft don't work. To start an engine, you have to crank the engine, rotate the engine fan. If APU is not functional, pilot starts one engine, before push back, when the aircraft is in the bay with the help of an external power source. Once the engine is started, the power source is disconnected, the aircraft is pushed back then the live engine has to be revved up for the other engine to be started," said a commander. The accident seems to have occurred during one of these procedures. During a regular start-up, once the aircraft has been pushed back and is ready to start taxiing, the ground control gives start-up clearance to start engine number one and then two after ensuring that no one is near the engines.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has initiated an inquiry into the accident. Air India chairman Ashwani Lohani will be leaving for Mumbai on Thursday morning to examine the accident and take follow up action. "We are deeply saddened and regret this tragic incident. This is being investigated. Our heartfelt condolence to the bereaved family," Lohani said. Deputy Commissioner of Police (Zone Vlll) Virendra Mishra confirmed the accident and said that the Sahar police are in the process of registering a case of accidental death.
This is the second tragedy of its kind at Indian airports. In 1995, a person was crossing the Hyderabad runway on his moped when an aircraft (VT-EPM) landed there. Since the engines were on and the person was dangerously close on the runway, he got sucked in. "That person was a bystander who was neither working at the airport, not with any airline. He borrowed an airport pass from a policeman posted at the airport who happened to be his relative and that is how got access to crossing the runway on his moped. That was the time airport security was not very stringent and access was not tightly controlled," said an old timer.