Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Mumbai resident’s quest to mark the Emperor Ashoka air crash, 40 years on

In 1971, Air India bought its first Boeing 747 – a prestigious “Jumbo Jet” – and named it after the Mauryan ruler Emperor Ashoka. It was the first in a fleet of several Maharaja-themed luxury airplanes that Air India acquired in the 1970s. They were advertised as a “palace in the sky”.

Seven years later, the Emperor Ashoka was involved in a New Year’s Day tragedy. On January 1, 1978, minutes after taking off from Mumbai’s Santacruz airport at 8 pm, the plane crashed into the Arabian Sea barely 3 km off the city’s coast. All 213 people on board the flight to Dubai died in the deadliest flight accident in Air India’s history.

Two minutes after take-off, the Mumbai airport departure controller had asked the pilot to report back after the plane crossed 8,000 feet. The pilot, Madan Lal Kukar, with more than 18,000 hours of flying time under his belt, asserted that he would. “Happy New Year to you, sir,” he greeted the control tower. Twenty two seconds later, Emperor Ashoka hit the water.

For days after the crash, Bandra residents thronged the fort on the suburb’s promontory trying to catch a glimpse of the rescue operations, although nothing could be seen at that distance. At first, navy ships scoured the sea, hoping to find survivors. When it became clear that there were none, they attempted to salvage the wreckage and retrieve the flight recorder that held vital data that could explain the cause of the crash.

Now, on the 40-year anniversary of the Emperor Ashoka crash, one Mumbai resident wants to keep the memory of the tragedy alive.

Debashish Chakraverty, the son of an Air India pilot who had lost several colleagues and friends in the New Year’s Day accident, wants to erect a small memorial in honour of the victims of the crash on Bandra’s Bandstand promenade. For more than a year, Chakraverty has lobbied with local politicians and corporations to have a memorial plaque installed, but his efforts have not been successful.

“The Emperor Ashoka crash was one of the biggest tragedies of its time, but it is such a disappointment that nothing has been done about it,” said Chakraverty, a stock market investor living in Bandra. “It is important for us to remember that 213 people died that day, right near the coast of the city.”
The Emperor Ashoka crash came as a shock not just to India but to the world. Boeing 747s were known to be sturdy planes with distinctive upper decks that often had no passenger seats but were designed as luxurious first-class lounges with carpets, sofas and bars. Among them, Air India’s Emperor-themed 747s stood out with Indian murals on the inner walls of the aircraft and a separate flight attendant for the upper-deck lounge.

On the night that it crashed, Emperor Ashoka was carrying 190 passengers, 20 flight attendants, captains Kukar and Indu Virmani, and a flight engineer named Alfredo Faria.

While there have been conspiracy theories about explosions and sabotage, the cause of the accident has largely been attributed to a malfunctioning attitude director indicator – the instrument that informs pilots about the orientation of the aircraft relative to the Earth’s horizon. Soon after takeoff, the doomed flight’s ADI is said to have wrongly indicated to the pilots that the aircraft was tilting to the right, when it was in fact straight. The pilots made a sharp left bank to correct the angle, and hit the Arabian Sea waters instead, with the aircraft’s nose at a 35-degree angle.
“We used to live near the airport and my mother rushed to Bandra when we heard the news of the crash,” said Chakraverty, who was three years old in 1978. Chakraverty’s father, who had served as an Indian Air Force pilot for 27 years before joining Air India, was friends with Emperor Ashoka’s pilot Captain Indu Virmani, who was also an Air Force veteran. “My father lost many friends that night.”
31/12/17 Aarefa Johari/Scroll

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