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Pilots in Pakistan air crash distracted by coronavirus concerns, aviation minister says

"Corona was dominant over their mind. Their family was affected," Ghulam Sarwar Khan told Pakistan's parliament.
Volunteers look for survivors after a plane crashed in a residential area of Karachi, Pakistan, on May 22, 2020.
Volunteers look for survivors after a plane crashed in a residential area of Karachi, Pakistan, on May 22, 2020.Fareed Khan / AP
/ Source: Reuters

ISLAMABAD — The pilots of a Pakistan airliner that crashed last month, killing 97, were distracted and preoccupied as they talked about the coronavirus pandemic while preparing for an initial failed attempt to land, the country's aviation minister said on Wednesday.

The Airbus A320 of national carrier Pakistan International Airlines crashed on May 22 in the southern city of Karachi, killing all but two of those aboard as it came down around half-a-mile short of the runway on its second try.

The engines of the aircraft had touched the ground as it landed without its wheels down on the first attempt, before taking off again, minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan told parliament as he presented an initial report on the disaster.

The flight data showed the landing gear was lowered at 10 nautical miles, Khan said, but then raised again 5 nautical miles from the runway, which he described as "beyond comprehension".

The aircraft was "100 percent fit to fly" and there was no technical fault, he said, but added that the pilots were not "focused" because of the pandemic.

"The discussion throughout was about corona," Khan said, referring to exchanges between the pilot and co-pilot he said he had listened to on the cockpit voice recorder. "Corona was dominant over their mind. Their family was affected."

The report, reviewed by Reuters, did not spell out the pilots' conversation on the virus, but said they did not follow set protocols.

"Several warnings and alerts such as over-speed, landing gear not down and ground proximity alerts, were disregarded," it added. "The landing was undertaken with landing gear retracted. The aircraft touched the runway surface on its engines."

The report said the aircraft was cleared by controllers to land without observing that the landing gears were not extended, nor was it conveyed to the pilots that the engines had scraped the runway.

It added that there was no demonstration of any malfunction in the landing gear system on Flight PK8303, which had taken off from the eastern city of Lahore.

Shortly after the engines scraped the runway and a go-around was attempted, both engines failed one-by-one, the report said.

"When the plane took off again, both engines had been damaged; and when the plane was making an approach for a second landing it didn't have that power and fell on the residential area," Khan told a news conference later on Wednesday.

Khan said the captain and co-pilot, both of whom were killed, were experienced and medically fit.

Air traffic control drew the pilot's attention to the irregularity and urged a go-around, Khan said.

"They were warned by the controllers, but said, 'I'll manage'… and then they started discussing corona again."

"The last words from the pilot were, 'Oh God, oh God, oh God'," Khan added.