A Boeing 737 passenger plane with 58 people on board crashed in flames into a housing complex near the eastern Indian city of Patna today. The plane, which was exactly 20 years old, was scheduled to be taken out of service by the end of the year.
Thirty-nine bodies, most of them burned beyond recognition, were pulled from wreckage after the Boeing 737-200 crashed into two brick houses about a mile from its destination.
The plane’s cockpit voice recorder has been found, Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav said. Now Boeing and Indian aviation officials are investigating what caused the crash and whether the plane caught fire before or after impact.
S.P. Modi, director of the airport authority at Patna, said the crash killed 51 people on board and four people on the ground. Seven passengers survived when they were thrown from the plane as it exploded on impact, officials said.
“Miracles do take place in this world. I thank God for it,” said Bharat Rungta, a passenger who told Press Trust of India he was jolted out of sleep when the Alliance Air plane went down and “managed to jump out of the plane.”
An Aging Plane
Indian aviation guidelines call for aircraft to be grounded after 20 years — the exact age of the plane that crashed today, according to the domestic news agency United News of India. But a Boeing spokesman in Seattle and an Indian Airlines spokesman in New Delhi said the planes can be used indefinitely as long as they are properly maintained.
Indian Airlines, the government-owned parent of Alliance Air, wants to replace all its 737s and Airbus 300s in two years, UNI said.
Of the eight crashes since 1973 involving Indian Airlines, six have been Boeing 737s.
But Indian Airlines maintained the aircraft’s age was not a factor today. “This aircraft was fully airworthy,” Indian Airlines spokesman Robin Pathak said.
“It’s not a question of whether an aircraft is old or new, what counts is whether it is maintained well enough,” Pathak said. “There are more than 1,000 planes flying elsewhere that are more than 25 years old.”
Boeing has sent an investigator to the crash site, spokesman Russ Young said.
Another Boeing spokesman in Seattle, Gary Lesser, said the plane was delivered in June 1980 and had recorded 42,000 flight hours.
Digging for Survivors
The jet crashed at 7:30 a.m. while making a second attempt to land at an airport in Patna. Several witnesses said the plane was on fire before it came down, though a national aviation official said it was not.
After the crash, relatives, police and airport workers rushed to the wreckage and searched for survivors. They used shovels, bare hands and homemade implements to dig through debris and pull people from the damaged houses.
Eleven survivors were taken to the hospital — seven of them from the plane and four from the housing complex, hospital officials said.
Civil Aviation Ministry secretary A.H. Jung told reporters that the pilot, Capt. Sohan Pal, had requested to circle for a second time before attempting a landing — something Jung said was not unusual in what he called hazy visibility conditions.
Pilot May Have Flown Too Low
But Pal, who had 4,300 flying hours, may have been flying too low as he made his second approach, Jung said.
“There was nothing wrong with the plane’s systems. The pilot reported no problems during the flight,” he said. He said the plane was in “perfect condition.”