ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday January 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 33

Mihin Lanka’s near disaster in the air

  • Flight MJ 401 makes “Mayday” landing
  • Aircraft left minus vital component to engines!
  • 7 1/2-hour wait inside the aircraft

Leon Berenger on board Mihin Lanka MJ 401

It took wing from the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo last Sunday with 131 passengers and six crew members on board, it was a routine flight for “Mihin Lanka”MJ 401. The flight listed for departure at 18.00 hrs local time, left the tarmac some 10 minutes behind schedule and headed for the Indian coast.

The bulk of the passengers on board the ageing Bulgarian built aircraft were expatriate Sri Lankan workers returning to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after the Christmas and New Year holidays. Also among the crowd were several young individuals heading for Dubai for the first time to take up employment.

File photo: Mihin Lanka aircraft at the Katunayake airport.

The passengers also included whole families from tiny tots to month-old infants and everyone was eager to reach their destination as early as possible, because the day following was a work day. As the aircraft veered towards the Arabian Sea, the normal aviation route to West Asia after nearly two hours of flying time everybody on board realized that some thing was wrong somewhere. The plane began to shudder violently and the captain urged those on board to fasten their safety belts saying that the aircraft had hit a patch of rough weather.

What was more confusing was that the cabin crew was instructed to take up landing positions. The captain’s announcement surprised almost everyone on board, since many of the passengers having taken this route on numerous earlier occasions knew only too well that the flight had at least another two hours of flying time before it reached the Dubai Airport.

So why are they landing? and where? It was any one’s frightening guess… As tension began to grip those on board, the cabin lights suddenly began to dim to be followed by a sickening thud from both wings of the aircraft. The aircraft was now steadily descending from the night sky although there was no visible landmark in sight.

The confused and frightened passengers opted to keep their thoughts to themselves and perhaps pray….. Yet there was only silence from the navigators. By this time the thuds from the aircraft wings increased to a steady tempo, accompanied by a funny burning smell that had by now engulfed the cabin area.

It must have been ages before the Captain’s faltering voice was once again heard. “Ladies and gentlemen. In a short while from now we will be landing at the Bombay International Airport. There is a small problem…………no, no, no, no… problem”. This was followed by total ‘radio silence’. It must have taken at least another 10 minutes before the lights of Mumbai City were visible from the sky. The aircraft was yet to land.

And land it did, to the relief of all those on board… and then the plane landed and safely taxied towards the rear end of the Chandrapathi Sivaji International Airport. It was only after the plane came to a halt that the facts began to emerge. The aircraft was immediately surrounded by fire engines, armed security personnel, para- medic teams and local ground handlers.

“Mihin Lanka” MJ401 had made a “May Day” landing in the Indian city of Mumbai. However for the passengers on board the ordeal was not over, in fact it had just begun... On landing at Sivaji International Airport the local time read 8.30 pm. The passengers were instructed to remain seated inside the aircraft until further notice since there were certain matters to be sorted out with the local authorities before disembarkation could be permitted.

No explanation was given for the emergency landing or when the flight would resume its journey to Dubai. The passengers did as they were told. Four more hours into the night and still there was no word from the Captain and his crew. Tension soon turned into rage, prompting irate passengers to take their anger out on the helpless cabin staff.

The situation was however brought under control by other passengers who urged patience and calm. Nearly six hours later a representative from a well recognized local travel firm boarded the plane and announced that arrangements have been made to book all the passengers at a nearby hotel. -the time was nearly 2.00 am.

He said, it would take more time since immigration regulations had to be adhered to and added that the delay in solving the problem was caused by the nature of the situation where the aircraft had made an unscheduled stop. The local aviation authorities were treating it as an “incident” and there were several issues to be investigated and paper work to be completed in keeping with international aviation regulations.

He further said Mihin Lanka was alien to Mumbai. It did not have any standard agreements with the local airline industry or any other authority in Mumbai which complicated matters even further. Before leaving the aircraft he promised to return as quickly as possible.

He returned an hour later with good news. All passengers would be allowed to disembark on condition they handed over their passports to his travel firm in keeping with instructions from the airport immigration authorities.By this time the passengers who had been kept waiting for some seven-and-a-half hours inside the aircraft were in no mood to argue the point.

Passports were handed over and the tired and sleepy passengers finally entered a hotel at around 5.30 am, to be told by hotel staff that they should vacate the premises by 3.45 pm the same day. By 3.45 the cowed passengers arrived at the lobby of the hotel, only to find the replacement aircraft from Colombo was yet to arrive in Mumbai… It was around 9.30 pm when the 131 passengers finally made it to the replacement flight. But the ordeal was far from over. Pssengers were forced to sit it out for another frustrating five hours.

This time around it was the turn of the local aviation authorities which caused a delay. The green light for take off was not given as the handlers of Mihin Lanka in Colombo had failed to furnish documents needed in a situation such as this. It was learnt during the drama the aircraft had left Colombo minus a vital component on one of it’s engines! This eventually led to a severe oil leak crippling the aircraft.According to engineers at the Sivaji International Airport the aircraft had limped on to the tarmac on a single engine. and it was only sheer courage and brilliance of the Turkish captain which averted a major disaster in the sky.

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