A 25-year-old co-pilot almost killed his 113 passengers when he tried to move his seat and accidently sent the Boeing 737 into a terrifying 7,000-foot plunge.
The unidentified co-pilot on discount airline Air India Express was adjusting his seat forward and inadvertently pressed the control column forward, causing the plane to do a 26-degree nose dive, according to a report from India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation. To put that in perspective, Todd Curtis, director of the Airsafe.com Foundation, told ABC News that the Space Shuttle glides in at the very steep 20-degree angle.
The aircraft's pilot was taking a bathroom break and the co-pilot "got in a panic situation, couldn't control the aircraft or ... open the cockpit door."
The 39-year-old captain then used a secret code to gain entry to the cabin and pull the plane out of its dive. The aircraft would have broken apart if the descent had continued, the aviation agency report said. The aircraft was not damaged, and no one was injured.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation said that the young co-pilot had not been trained to handle the situation and "probably had no clue to tackle this kind of emergency."
The nearly fatal incident occurred on May 25 on a flight from Dubai to Pune, India.
Three days earlier, another Air India Express plane overshot a runway in southern India, crashed over a cliff and burst into flames. In that crash, at Mangalore's Bajpe airport, 158 people were killed. That flight was also coming from Dubai, and the crash was blamed on a sleepy pilot.
"Although historically, India has a higher rate of crashes than the United States, I don't think this is because of any radical differences in air crews there," Curtis said.
India has a strong civil aviation agency, Curtis said, and all the airlines around the world fly the same aircraft, go through the same pilot training and follow the same procedures. As long as the airline is certified by the Indian government, he said, passengers shouldn't worry.
"This is not a black eye on Indian aviation," he said.
Air India Express runs flights to Dubai and other Middle Eastern destinations, where millions of Indian expatriate workers are employed.
Discount airlines have come under scrutiny ever since a Continental Express flight, operated by Colgan Airways, crashed just short of Buffalo's airport in February 2009. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed that crash on failure by the flight crew to follow proper cockpit procedures. The co-pilot on that flight was 24 years old and had commuted from her home in Florida to her base in New Jersey.
As for the Air India Express flight, after the pilot regained control of the plane, he told passengers -- who were in the middle of a meal -- that the plane "went through an air pocket, and that is why there was a rapid descent."
The report said there was "complete commotion" in the cabin, and that passengers were "very much scared and were shouting loudly" as the plane dived steeply and boxes and liquor bottles fell into the aisle.
Passengers still trying to gauge an airline's safety record, pilot training and maintenance procedures, often struggle to learn details. But the European Union does maintain a list of airlines banned from flying into its member countries. The list is in no way a failsafe guide to safe and unsafe airlines, but it is a pretty good indicator of the arilines travelers should at least try to avoid.