An Air India Express plane trying to land in southern India overshot the runway, crashed and burst into flames at dawn Saturday, killing almost all of the people on board, officials said.
Pilot error was being blamed after a Boeing 737-800 overshot a hilltop runway in India, plunged over a cliff and exploded in flames, killing 159 people, The Sunday Times reported.
Experts claimed that although the pilot had landed at Mangalore on 19 previous occasions, he appeared to have touched down too far along the 8,000ft (2440m) runway, missing the “landing threshold” and leaving too little time to stop.
Pilot error was a “likely” cause of the disaster, said Kapil Kaul, chief executive of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, a research group.
Seven people escaped the crash of an Indian jetliner with 166 people on board.
Firefighters struggled to reach the twisted, smoking wreckage, which was scattered along the hillside of thick grass and trees just outside Mangalore's Bajpe airport.
But after the first few minutes, there were no more survivors to be found around what remained of the Air India Express flight from Dubai to this port city. Instead, scores of burned bodies were pulled from the blackened tangle of aircraft cables, twisted metal, charred trees and mud at the crash site. Many of the dead were strapped into their seats, their bodies burned beyond recognition.
Air India, the country's national carrier, runs inexpensive flights under the Air India Express banner to Dubai and other Middle Eastern destinations where millions of Indians are employed.
Relatives of the victims, who had been waiting at the airport for the plane's arrival, stood near the wreckage weeping.
Ummer Farook Mohammed, a survivor burned on his face and hands, said it felt like a tire burst after the plane landed. "There was a loud bang, and the plane caught fire," he said.
"The plane shook with vibrations and split into two," G.K. Pradeep, another survivor, told CNN-IBN television. He jumped out of the aircraft with four others into a pit, he said. Moments later, a large explosion set off a blaze that consumed the wreckage, he said. It was not immediately clear if all the survivors escaped in the same way.
Firefighters sprayed water and foam on the plane as others struggled to find survivors. An Associated Press photo showed two rescuers running up a hill carrying a young girl covered in foam to waiting medics. Though no details were available, the girl was believed to have died, because officials said the only female survivor was an adult.
The plane was carrying 160 passengers — all Indian — and six crew members, Air India official Anup Srivastava said. Four infants and 19 other children were among the passengers. The British pilot, who was of Serbian origin, and an Indian co-pilot were among the dead, officials said.
Employees of JAT Airways, the Serbian national carrier, identified the captain as Zlatko Glusica, 55, a Serb with a British passport who had been flying for Air India for the past three years. He had previously flown for JAT, but like many pilots had left the airline in recent years as it plunged into deep financial troubles. The JAT employees spoke on condition they not be identified, because they were not permitted to speak to the media.
By Saturday night, rescuers had pulled 159 bodies from the wreckage. The seven survivors were being treated in hospitals, the airline said.
Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said that conversations with the cockpit and other records showed the flight was operating normally before the touchdown.
The crash was the deadliest in India since the November 1996 midair collision between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane near New Delhi that killed 349 people.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences and promised compensation for the families of the victims. Boeing said it was sending a team to aid in the investigation.
The crash happened about 6 a.m. when the plane tried to land at Bajpe, about 19 miles outside of Mangalore, and overshot the runway, said Srivastava, the official with the financially struggling Indian national carrier.
Scores of villagers scrambled over the hilly terrain to reach the wreckage, and began aiding in the rescue operation. Pre-monsoon rains over the past two days caused low visibility in the area, but officials differed on whether it was raining at the time of the crash.
At Dubai International Airport, a special room was set up to assist relatives and friends of the passengers at Terminal 2, a hub for many budget and small airlines.
The Mangalore airport's location, on a plateau surrounded by hills, made it difficult for the firefighters to reach the crash site, officials said. Aviation experts said Bajpe's "tabletop" runway, which ends in a valley, makes a bad crash inevitable when a plane does not stop in time.
"If the pilot overshoots the runway, the aircraft will be in trouble," said Asif, an aviation expert who uses one name.
Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said the plane's pilot had more than 10,000 hours of flying experience, including 26 landings at Mangalore. The co-pilot had more than 3,750 hours of experience and 66 landings at Mangalore, he said.
External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said the Mangalore runway had a reputation for being difficult.
"Our worst fears have come true," he told the Press Trust of India.
Accidents of this type, known as "runway excursions," are fairly common, though the majority end without injury or damage.
The International Civil Aviation Organization and pilots' groups have urged airports worldwide to construct 300 yard-long safety extensions at the end of each runway for extra protection.
Older airports in built-up areas or those in tight locations with little room for extensions are advised to install soft ground layers — known as arrestor beds — to slow planes, much as escape ramps on highways can stop trucks when their brakes fail.
The 8,000-foot Mangalore runway had a short spillover area of about 300 feet with a bed of sand designed to halt or slow a plane that overshoots, Patel said.
"Obviously, the aircraft was at a higher speed," he said.
More than 32,000 landings had been made on the runway since it opened in 2006, officials said.
The crash came as the national carrier tries to weather serious financial difficulties.
In February, the government approved a $173 million cash infusion for the airline, which has suffered decades of mismanagement and underinvestment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report