A dark day. I feel the bile creeping up my throat. I feel like crying out, "We told you so. WE TOLD YOU SO!" Who's responsible? Decide for yourself.
Here are excerpts from the cover story I wrote (along with Mahesh Nayak and Vikas Kumar K. C.) for Mangalore Today (Oct/Nov 1998 issue). I remember this issue very clearly because of a tough deadline. I wrote the story through the night and finished it by dawn. By dusk the same day, the magazine had been put to bed. I remember this story also because of a controversial remark made by the then Senior Airports Officer in charge of the Mangalore aiport. He had said, "If an international airport is not set up here, I see no future for this airport. It might as well close down." I asked him thrice if I could quote him. Yes, he replied on each occasion. He was suspended for making that statement.
Anyway, here are the excerpts:
With a table-top runway of just around 5300 ft, the sheer drops on either sides, it is acknowledged to be the second most hazardous airport in the country after the one at Port Blair. The only consolation is that when the aircraft reaches the edge of the cliff, it really takes off, unlike the scientist-aviators before the Wright brothers. At least they have been unfailingly doing so, thanks to the expert pilots whom the airline companies specially depute for the Mangalore-bound flights.
"According to international conventions, Boeings should not be allowed to land at [the old airstrip of the] Bajpe airport" - quote by Yashwant Kamath.
The existing runway strip is only 5300 ft long, has got a slope of five degrees and is unsuited for use by bigger aircraft like the A-320s.
Indeed, the limitations posed by the table-top runway will prove to be major hurdle [in the operation of international flights]. There may not be many takers for this potentially hazardous task. Even for domestic flights, due to the short length of the runway, the aircraft weight has to be carefully monitored, and the ratio between the number of passengers, weight of cargo and the weight of fuel have to be precisely balanced, failing which the aircraft will not get the necessary lift within the available runway space. Often, the number of passengers has to be limited to 80% of the capacity or eve lesser.
The site where the Avro carrying the then minister Veerappa Moily almost had a peek down the cliff edge. Fortunately, the only mishap so far.
I've not exactly been tuned to the happenings since this story broke. I do remember that 208 families had to be evacuated to create the new airstrip. They fought long and hard to hold on to their land, but apparently lost.
What amazes me is that today, the TV channels showed the aircraft that tumbled as having used the old airstrip. If this is true, then it's the worst kind of irresponsible behaviour possible. An airstrip that was unsafe for even domestic flights can be employed for international flights only by the most irresponsible people on the planet.
I'm going to find out what happened to the new aistrip. But felt like getting this out at the soonest. Watch out for more updates.
Alright, more updates.
The new runway was used. Thank God for that. This doesn't mean that this runway is long and comfortable enough. It's only longer than the old one and gives the international pilots a tad more legroom, as it were.
And there are questions to be raised about planning as regards the new runway. A few more relevant excerpts from the 1998 cover story:
They [a committee formed by civilians] also accuse the AAI of several serious violations of the norms as prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of which India is a member:
1) The geography will allow a runway width of only 200 m instead of the statutory 300 m.
2) It will lie within four-km aerial length of the corporation garbage dumping ground, instead of the prescribed 10 km. This means the risk of bird hits is high.
3) The proposed Indo-Rama polymers plant at Kenjar will fall within range, violating airline regulations.
The committe instead suggests that the airport will be better served if it takes the expansion along the other side at Sunkadakatte where, he says, a 12000 ft stretch will be available. "But the land is dotted with concrete buidings occupied by the rich. A minister's (B. A. Moideen's) house also comes in the way," he [Fr. Ronald D'Souza] added cynically.
Remember that this report was filed in 1998. The new runway became operational in 2006. In this duration, one hopes that the concerns raised above were addressed and the alternative location of the new runway considered. Thankfully, my journalist friends are on Ground Zero, covering the event. And we now have a few pointed questions to ask.
And one more question begs itself: the new International airport was a fresh start. A new airstrip, a new terminal. Everything was built from scratch. That being the case, why was an alternative location not considered? Why Bajpe? Why not Padubidri, as proposed by many? Padubidri has a more docile terrain and would have been more cost-effective as well.
Because the Bajpe location was never meant for civilian landings. It was merely a convenient landing spot for the military and government aircraft during the British rule, used mainly for refuelling the aircraft as they flew between Cochin and Bombay.
Having said that, it's a little too late to make a fresh start now, at least for the hapless victims.
Answers. Need some answers.