Plane was alerted to approaching jet in India crash

CHARKHI DADRI, India (AP) — As a Kazak cargo plane flew head-on toward a Saudi jetliner, controllers told its pilot to watch out for the 747 in the clouds ahead. The pilot asked how close it was.
“Fourteen miles,” a controller said.
Seconds later: “Thirteen miles.”
The pilot’s acknowledgement of that message was the last word New Delhi airport flight controllers had from either aircraft before they hit and spun to earth in spectacular twin fireballs, taking 349 people to their deaths.
The exchanges, in transcripts released Wednesday, indicate the planes did not see each other in time and hint that the pilots were misled by their instruments or misunderstood the tower’s directions. They were supposed to pass with a 1,000-foot difference in altitude — instructions that the Saudi plane’s pilots never confirmed, the transcripts show.
The Saudi Boeing 747 was seven minutes into its flight and the Kazak plane was descending for its final approach into Indira Gandhi International Airport when the collision occurred Tuesday about 60 miles southwest of New Delhi.
Whether there was a last-minute evasive maneuver by either plane was unclear, but India’s top civil aviation ministry official said the crash was not direct.
“It was not a head-on collision,” Yogesh Chandra said at a news conference. “The cockpit and fuselage of the Kazak airliner was found intact.”
Searchers retrieved hundreds of bodies from wreckage strewn in a six-mile area around Charkhi Dadri. Grieving relatives tried to identify the badly mangled remains of their loved ones lying on blocks of ice at makeshift morgues.
Many of the victims of the Saudi Airlines flight that carried 312 passengers and crew apparently were Indian workers returning to jobs in the Middle East or making the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca; the Kazak plane carrying 37 people had been chartered by a clothing company in Kazakstan.
A weeping Irene Colaso said she identified her 20-year-old daughter Sanim, a flight attendant on the Saudi plane, by her feet — the rest of her body was burned beyond recognition.
Searchers found the flight data recorders of both planes Wednesday but only the cockpit voice recorder of the Kazak plane. The recordings were not made public immediately.
But flight control transcripts showed that the airport tower instructing the Kazak plane to fly at 15,000 feet and the Saudi plane, which was ascending, to level off at 14,000 feet. The Saudi plane never acknowledged the order to hold its altitude.
The tower then told the Kazak plane’s pilot that the Saudi aircraft was 14 miles away: “Identified traffic 12 o’clock reciprocal. Saudi Boeing 747, 14 miles. Report in sight.”
The Kazak pilot replied: “Report how many miles?”
“Fourteen miles now,” the tower said.
Moments later, the controller told the pilot that the Saudi plane was just 13 miles away, flying at 14,000 feet.
The aircraft were traveling at hundreds of miles per hour at the time of the crash; the Boeing 747 takes off at about 200 mph, reaching a maximum speed of 600 mph, while the slightly slower Ilyushin-76 flown by Kazakstan Airlines lands at about 150 mph.
At that speed, the planes heading toward one another were eating up about six miles per minute. With 13 miles separating the two aircraft, the pilots had just two minutes to avoid a crash.
The exact cause of the crash, the third-deadliest crash in aviation history, may take months to determine. But speculation already has focused on antiquated radar equipment and poor communications.
Chandra, the civil aviation official, said the army has restricted air space over Delhi, reducing the airport to only one air corridor for civilian aircraft landing and taking off.
A.K. Bhardwaj, assistant general-secretary of the Air Traffic Controllers Guild, said his union had been demanding separate corridors because traffic at the airport has increased from 170 daily arrivals and departures three years ago to as many as 290 now.
Bhardwaj also said the equipment he and his colleagues use to direct planes is inadequate.
“I have a belief that no other country is using this sort of radar, which gives only the image of the aircraft. It doesn’t show me any altitude,”Bhardwaj told The Associated Press.