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THE INDIAN AIR CRASH: Tapes point blame at Kazakh pilot

Officials blame poor English for disaster at 14,000ft
The mid-air plane crash over northern India, which killed 351 people on Tuesday night, may have been caused by pilot error, according to Indian authorities.

Indian aviation officials yesterday released excerpts of the taped conversation between New Delhi's control tower and the pilots of the Saudia Airlines jumbo jet and the Kazakh Airways Ilyushin charter plane which collided in darkness at 14,000ft. There were no survivors, but two passengers from the Saudi flight survived the crash, still strapped to their seats, only to die soon after of internal injuries.

The tapes, according to Indian officials, prove that both pilots acknowledged receiving instructions from air controllers to fly at varying heights. The Saudi flight, bound to Dharan and Jeddah, was cleared to fly at 14,000ft, while the Kazakh aircraft, headed for New Delhi, was ordered to descend no lower than 15,000ft.

"We've had bad experiences with these pilots from the former Soviet Union," said one senior official at Delhi airport. "They don't speak English very well. When we ask them to repeat the instructions we've just given them, a lot of times they say `Roger' and then turn off their radios."

In the transcript, the Kazakh pilot reports in at 15,000ft and is told: "Roger, maintain level 150 [15,000ft]. Identified traffic 12 o'clock reciprocal. Saudi Boeing 747, 14 miles. Report in sight."

The Kazakh pilot: "Report how many miles?"

Control tower: "14 miles now. Roger. Traffic in 13 miles, level 140 (14,000 feet)."

A minute later the controller watched, horrified, as two green blips on his radar converged and vanished off the radar screen.

Indian air controllers also complained that pilots from the former Soviet Union sometimes confuse their calculations because they are accustomed to using the metric system to calibrate altitude and distances, while all other countries use nautical miles and feet.

However, according to one air consultant, Rashid Jung, "plane crashes occur not because of one error but because of many factors". Searchers picking through the smouldering wreckage of the two planes, which crashed to earth six miles from each other, yesterday located the two black boxes which may reveal more details.

Some airline experts claim that over the past three years, New Delhi's air traffic has increased by 20 per cent, and the control tower is often left to juggle take-offs and landings with out-dated equipment. Some experts suggested that New Delhi's approach radar unit lacked sophisticated monitoring devices, common now to most international airports, which not only track an aircraft but also give its exact altitude.

It is also common practice for controllers to route incoming and outgoing aircrafts along different "lanes" in the sky. But because of the Indian air force's stringent controls over civil air traffic, the western route into New Delhi - connecting the capital to the Gulf and Europe - serves for aircraft that are both taking off and landing.

Relatives of the crash victims arrived at the dusty village of Charkhi Dadri yesterday, 60 miles west of Delhi, to try to identify the remains of their loved ones. It was a gruesome, thankless task. Most of the Saudia passengers were Indian workers, but there was one Briton - Karen McCoy, 26, from Birmingham.

Karen's father, Michael, 55, speaking from the family's home in Northfield, Birmingham, said his daughter had gone to work in Saudi Arabia as a nurse 13 months ago. She had written home to her father and her step-mother Enid, 63, also a nurse, just a month ago to tell them she was planning a two-week holiday in India.

Mr McCoy said: "When I saw it on the news I just knew that she was on board. We rang the airline but they could not confirm the passenger list but then the police called at 11.30pm last night and told us that she had gone through customs."

Aside from such things as a shoe or a wallet strewn in the wreckage, there was nothing left to identify the bodies. Even still, the numbed relatives wandered through the debris with sheets and pieces of cloth to drape over the scattered remains. None of the police or searchers had bothered with such decorum.

Local residents said they were sure the pilot of the jumbo averted an even worse disaster by steering his blazing aircraft away from their villages.

The United News of India quoted witnesses in a nearby village as saying the aeroplane turned away from their houses just before it crashed.

"I strongly felt that the pilot tried to save the people," Karan Singh, was quoted as saying in Dahni Phabot village. "We had a miraculous escape."