Pilot deaths during flights are rare. Image Credit: Agency

With zero fatalities from aviation incidents in 2017, flying has never been safer; but pilots must remain ever mindful of things that could go wrong: miscommunication, the weather, the aircraft's condition and passengers, too

"I say again, turn!" the air traffic controller called over the radio, his voice rising, as the US-Bangla Airlines flight from Dhaka swerved low over the runway at Kathmandu's small airport on Monday.

Seconds later, the plane went up in flames, crashing into a field beside the runway, killing at least 49 people. The pilot survived.

That fiery moment on Monday appeared to result from minutes of confused chatter between the air traffic controller (ATC) and the pilot of the US-Bangla passenger plane, as they talked back and forth about direction the pilot should use to land at the airport's single runway.

A separate radio conversation between the tower and at least one Nepali pilot reflected the sense of miscommunication.

"They appear to be extremely disoriented," a man said in Nepali, watching as Flight BS211 (Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop, 17-years old) made its approach, though it was not clear if the voice belonged to a pilot or the tower.

"Looks like they are really confused," said another man.


Crash investigations usually take time, partly due to the rigors of deciphering flight data; it may be months before aviation experts can definitively conclude whether it was indeed confusion — or miscommunication — that led to deadly Nepal crash.

The Kathmandu crash, however, was just one of the four aviation incidents that took place within a 48-hour period that took at least 65 lives.

On Sunday, a private jet crashed in Iran killing 11 people, including the heiress of a Turkish construction magnate

A chopper crash killed five people in the US on Monday. And few hours later, an emergency landing of Southwest Flight 3562 triggered panic among passengers who were sent leaping from the jet's wing.

While such incidents highlight the perils of flying, air travel is still safer than driving a car. Today's aircraft are some of the safest machines created and designed to keep working even if things go wrong.

To keep things in perspective, consider this fact: more people actually die of lightning strikes (24,000 per year according to publicly available sources).

Moreover, The Economist (citing 2015 figures) stated that the probability of dying in a plane crash is one to 5.4 million.

How safe is flying?

Commercial pilots undergo way more rigorous training other professionals — far tougher than that of police officers, firefighters and other safety-oriented professions.

But human error, a technical glitch and bad weather do spell the difference between joy and horror of flying. 

An experienced pilot who talked to Gulf News on condition of anonymity said pilot-ATC miscommunication is, generally, not an issue.

"There had been cases when accent posed a minor issue, but miscommunication (as a trigger for crash) is very rare," said the pilot who has been flying wide-bodied aircraft for several years.

"You have at least two pilots in the cockpit talking to the ATC, and the pilots also check each other — constantly. By law, English is the language of aviation. Both ATC guys and pilots must pass Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exams as part of the licensing process."

"Thankfully, I've never had a miscommunication issue in my job," said the US-trained pilot.

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"Flying is generally very safe. If you look at the figures, 2017 was one of the safest ever in aviation history; there was not a single fatal crash last year, despite the big spike in air travel," the pilot said.

About 4.1 billion people travelled via airplane last year, and not a single passenger plane crash took place.

 Click to enlarge image


Pilot fatigue

But human factor could also play a role.

"Every airline must follow certain protocols to ensure their pilots have enough rest, in order to avoid pilot fatigue becoming a safety issue.

Then fail-safe procedures must be observed, so that when one pilot calls in sick, a replacement is immediatley available. Not all airlines follow that protocol, however, especially when there's a manpower shortage," the pilot told Gulf News.

Manpower is also one important issue. The pilot added: "For every aircraft, you need at least 12 pilots — captains and first officers — whether it's flying a domestic or international route, single or double-isle. These pilots must be stationed in different cities."

He said, however, that pilot fatigue will increasingly become issue with a spike commercial aviation and as older pilots reach retirement age.

"In South-East Asia and China alone," said the pilot, "they're close to facing a pilot shortage. So does in America. A lot of airlines, especially low-cost ones, have ordered literally thousands of aircraft. You need enough people who are properly trained to fly them."

More planes, more pilots  

A Boeing report stated that airlines around the world would buy 41,000 new aircraft between 2017 and 2036.

That would mean at least 637,000 new pilots are needed to fly them, according to Boeing forecast released last year. That staggering figure is matched only by how many will leave or retire from the profession in the next decade.

International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO, a UN body) rules set the limit of flying time to a maximum of 125 hours in a 30-day month. The same ICAO rules set a legal limit of 1,000 hours of flying time within one year.

A pilot's rest period is also important: "If I go lower than the required threshhold of rest, I'm no longer legally allowed to fly."

"A pilot who flies from city A to B; then to city C and D within an eigh-hour period needs a minimum amount of rest of about 15 hours. A wide-bodied plane that flies long haul (4,000 km or more; between 6-12 hours) needs three to four flight crew on board," the pilot explained.

Stress factors

Then, there are so many things that a pilot must mind before, during and after a flight. One is pesky passengers. Those who insist on using their smart phones during takeoff and landing could pose a major safety issue, the pilot explained.

"Electromagnetic waves from smartphones interefere with other electronics in different ways. I would still remind passengers to switch off their phone during takeoff and landing, due to possible inteference with the airfact's avionics and communication system," he said.

The pilot has to mind many other, the threat of wake turbulence (disturbance in the atmosphere that forms behind an aircraft as it passes through the air), the aircraft's age and its centre of gravity.

"If your plane is heavily laden and the payload rolls down to the end of the cargo hold, it could stall takeoff — and the result could be catastrophic. If, for some reason, the heavy cargo rolls to the front of the hold, it can also lead to catastrophic results."

The biggest challenge for a pilot, however, is focusing on the job — no matter the personal or domestic problems he may be facing.

"The job depends on so many factors: the condition or age of the aircraft, the cargo, the weather, the wind, the air traffic congestion and the ATC guys."

"It's a dream job for most people. I love my job. Not everyone gets the chance to fly a plane. You have to remain calm, collected and patient. When I'm on boad, fear of flying is the last thing in my mind," he said.


Most people have a fear of flying, but the chances of anything happening to them are very slim.

9,989 years - The number of years someone in the US must fly daily before the plane he's on crashes.

A trip from San Francisco to London on an American Airlines Airbus A330, for example, has a 1 in 3,646,151 chance of crashing (based on “Am I Going Down?”, app that calculates the odds of a disaster on the flight information that you input and on the International Air Transport Association, IATA, data).

1977 - The most dangerous plane crash in history, according to author David Ropeik, happened in 1977 in Tenerife and 583 people were killed during the incident, after two jumbo jets crashed into each other on the runway.

580 - The number of people who die in the United States from heart disease every 8 hours, according to The Economist.

You are also more likely to die falling out of your bed or crossing the road or getting struck by lightning, than you are to die in a plane crash.

(With inputs from agencies)


Crash survivors: First chaos, then a 'bang'

KATHMANDU, Nepal: A plane crash survivor recounted how the ill-fated aircraft that was "behaving strangely" before crash near Nepal's international airport that killed 49, survivor says.

Survivors and witnesses of a plane crash in Nepal have described have described the chaotic moments that preceded when the aircraft went down, killing at least 49 people. 

The flight, carrying 71 passengers and crew, crashed while landing at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport.

Witnesses said there was a "loud bang" and that the plane shook violently while people wept inside the aircraft and chanted.

The cause of the crash — the worst aviation disaster to hit Nepal in years — remains unclear, and an investigation is under way. 


Confused chatter between pilot, ATC 

KATHMANDU, Nepal: "I say again, turn!" the air traffic controller called over the radio, his voice rising, as the flight from Bangladesh swerved low over the runway at Kathmandu's small airport.

Seconds later, the plane crashed into a field beside the runway, killing at least 49. The pilot survived.

Flight data recorder retrieved from wreckage 

KATHMANDU: Investigators have retrieved the flight data recorder from the wreckage of a US-Bangla Airlines passenger plane that crashed, killing at least 49 people on board, as it attempted to land at Kathmandu, a senior airport official in Nepal's capital said on Tuesday.

Victims' bodies have been recovered from the wreckage of a Bangladeshi plane that crashed in Kathmandu on Monday, an official said

North or south?

In the recording, posted by air traffic monitoring website liveatc.net, the pilot and the tower shifted back and forth about whether the pilot should approach the runway from the north or the south.

Just before landing, the pilot asked, "Are we cleared to land?"

Moments later, the controller came back on the air, his voice clearly anxious, and told the pilot, "I say again, turn!" Seconds after that, the controller ordered firetrucks onto the runway.

'Pilots misled?'

Imran Asif, CEO of US-Bangla Airlines, told reporters in Dhaka that "we cannot claim this definitely at the moment, but we are suspecting that the Kathmandu air traffic control tower might have misled our pilots to land on the wrong runway."


Autopsies on the dead were being performed at the Kathmandu Medical College and Teaching Hospital morgue, where some 200 relatives waited to hear about their loved ones.

11 killed in Iran crash

Istanbul: A wealthy Turkish socialite and her friends are among the 11 people who died when a private plane bringing them home from a bachelorette party in the UAE crashed into an Iranian mountainside early Sunday, according Turkish officials.

Iranian investigators said they have found the "black box" from the Turkish private jet. Authorities recovered all the dead from the crash site in the Zagros Mountains outside of the city of Shahr-e Kord, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) south of Iran's capital, Tehran, according to a report by the state-run IRNA news agency.

Officials have so far identified eight bodies, including that of Mina Basaran, the 28-year-old daughter of the chairman of Turkey's Basaran Investment Holding, AP reported quoting the semi-official Mehr news agency reported Monday.

The wreckage of a Turkish private jet that crashed on Sunday in the Zagros Mountains, outside the city of Shahr-e Kord, some 370 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran. AP

The jet was owned by the private holding company of Turkish businessman Huseyin Basaran, and carried eight passengers and three crew, an official for Turkey's transport ministry said. 

Crash exposes the dangers of doors-off flights

NEW YORK: The five passengers who were killed when a helicopter without doors splashed into the East River on Sunday night were cinched into heavy-duty harnesses and tied to the helicopter floor with only a knife to free themselves from frigid waters. Given little more than a brief safety video beforehand, they were left at the mercy of a stiff current as the helicopter dragged them 50 blocks south, upside down and underwater, before rescue divers could cut them free.

The crash - the deadliest involving a helicopter in New York City since 2009 - exposed what aviation experts called startling safety gaps in the fast-growing industry of doors-off photo flights, once reserved for professional photographers but increasingly marketed to tourists looking to dangle their feet outside and share stomach-churning pictures of the skyline on Instagram.

The wreckage of a chartered Liberty Helicopters helicopter that crashed into the East River is hoisted from the water in New York. AP

Emergency landing sends passengers leaping from wing of Southwest jet

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico: A Dallas-bound flight made an emergency landing at Albuquerque International Sunport, sending panicked passengers leaping from a wing onto the tarmac after crew members screamed at them to get away from the aircraft, passengers and officials said.

Southwest Flight 3562 took off from Phoenix on Sunday night and was headed for Dallas Love Field. About an hour later, the crew noticed an unusual smell in the cabin, the airline said in a statement.

Southwest aircraft flight 3562 sits on the tarmac after making an emergency landing at Albuquerque International Sunport in Albuquerque, Arizona. AP

Passengers said they could feel heat from the vents shortly before the crew said the plane was going to make an emergency landing. Passengers were told to brace as the plane landed.

"I sent a couple texts out to loved ones that you just don't really want to have to send out," Brandon Cox said.

He said it was an 8-foot (2.44-meter) jump to the tarmac from the wing.

"I hit the ground really hard and was just shell-shocked that I just had to jump off the wing of an airplane," he said.

Passenger David Fleck said he was surprised to discover there were no emergency slides near the exit door over the wing.