NEW DELHI – At least 17 people were killed and 123 injured when a special return flight for Indians stranded abroad because of the coronavirus skidded off a hilltop runway and cracked in two while landing Friday in heavy rain in the southern state of Kerala, police said.
Among the injured, at least 15 were in critical condition, said Abdul Karim, a senior Kerala state police officer. Rescue operations were over, he said.
The dead included both pilots of the Air India Express flight, the airline said in a statement, adding that the four cabin crew members were safe.
The 2-year-old Boeing 737-800 flew from Dubai to Kozhikode, also called Calicut, in Kerala, India’s southernmost state, the airline said. There were 174 adult passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and four cabin crew on board.
Kozhikode's 2,850-meter (9,350-foot) runway is on a flat hilltop with deep gorges on either side ending in a 34-meter (112-foot) drop.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep S. Puri said in a statement that the flight “overshot the runway in rainy conditions and went down” the slope, breaking into two pieces upon impact.
A similar tragedy was narrowly avoided at the same airport a year ago, when an Air India Express flight suffered a tail strike upon landing. None of the 180 passengers of that flight was injured.
An inquiry will be conducted by the ministry’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau.
The airport's runway end safety area was expanded in 2018 to accommodate wide-body aircraft.
The runway end safety area meets United Nations international civil aviation requirements, but the U.N. agency recommends a buffer that is 150 meters (492 feet) longer than what exists at Kozhikode airport, according to Harro Ranter, chief executive of the Aviation Safety Network online database.
Dubai-based aviation consultant Mark Martin said that while it was too early to determine the cause of the crash, annual monsoon conditions appeared to be a factor.
“Low visibility, wet runway, low cloud base, all leading to very poor braking action is what looks like led to where we are at the moment with this crash,” Martin said, calling for the European Aviation Safety Agency and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to assist with the Indian government's investigation.
Kerala state Health Minister KK Shailaja on Saturday asked local residents who joined the rescue effort to go into quarantine as a precautionary measure. The survivors were being tested for the virus, officials said.
The Air India Express flight was part of the Indian government's special repatriation mission to bring Indian citizens back to the country, officials said. All of the passengers were returning from the Gulf region, authorities said. Regular commercial flights have been halted in India because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “pained by the plane accident in Kozhikode,” and that he had spoken to Kerala’s top elected official.
Air India Express is a subsidiary of Air India.
The worst air disaster in India was on Nov. 12, 1996, when a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight collided midair with a Kazakhastan Airlines Flight near Charki Dadri in Haryana state, killing all 349 on board the two planes.
Associated Press writers Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi and Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.