Pilots Discussed Coronavirus, Ignoring Alerts Before Pakistan Crash, Officials Say


The pilots ignored repeated warnings that they were flying too high approaching Karachi’s airport, and failed to lower the landing gear, according to a preliminary report.

Workers examining the wreckage of a plane crash in Karachi, Pakistan in late March.
Workers examining the wreckage of a plane crash in Karachi, Pakistan in late March.Credit...Fareed Khan/Associated Press

The pilots of a Pakistani airliner that crashed last month in Karachi were busy talking about the coronavirus and repeatedly ignored directions from air traffic controllers before their plane went down, killing 98 people, Pakistan’s aviation minister said Wednesday.

The Pakistan International Airlines pilots also ignored automated warnings in the cockpit and failed to lower the landing gear, causing the plane’s engines to hit the runway, according to a preliminary report on the crash.

The aviation minister, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, said air traffic controllers warned three times that the plane was flying too high on its approach to the runway at Karachi’s airport and directed it not to land.

“But the pilot ignored these warnings,” he said.

The plane was carrying military officers, executives and bankers on a flight from the eastern city of Lahore to Karachi on May 22 when it crashed into a residential area. Many passengers were headed to the port city to reunite with family members for the Eid al-Fitr holiday after being in lockdown for two months.

Of the 99 people on board, only 2 passengers survived. Four others on the ground were injured and one subsequently died.

Mr. Khan said the pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, was very experienced and there were no technical faults with the aircraft reported by the pilots during the flight.

“The pilots were discussing corona throughout the flight,” Mr. Khan said. “They were not focused.”

“When the control tower told the pilot about the plane’s dangerous height, the pilot said ‘I’ll manage’ and the pilots started discussing coronavirus again,” the minister added during a hearing at the National Assembly in Islamabad, the capital. “There was overconfidence.”

ImageRelatives at the funeral of one of the crash’s victims in late May.
Relatives at the funeral of one of the crash’s victims in late May.Credit...Rehan Khan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Like many developing countries, Pakistan is struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The number of deaths and infections have spiked in recent weeks. The country has 188,926 officially confirmed cases — but the real number is thought to be much higher — and 3,755 people have lost their lives to the virus.

The crash brought into focus the dismal state of affairs of Pakistan International Airlines, the national carrier, and after the crash, Prime Minister Imran Khan demanded an immediate inquiry.

The airline has experienced huge financial losses in recent decades. Corruption, nepotism, overstaffing, lack of quality control and favoritism in making appointments due to political pressures have plagued the airline, and attempts by successive governments to turn it into a profit-making entity have failed.

Adding to these troubles is the airline’s history of air disasters. The deadliest was in 2010, when an Airbus flying from Karachi crashed into a hill, killing all 152 onboard. In 2016, a Pakistan International Airlines plane burst into flames after one of its two turboprop engines failed, killing 48 people.

The aviation minister presented an alarming statistic about Pakistani aviation, saying that 40 percent of the pilots in the country were flying with fake licenses.

  • Updated June 24, 2020

    • A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

According to a preliminary government report on the May 22 crash, air traffic controllers warned the pilots about the plane’s “excessive height” as it prepared to land, “but landing approach was not discontinued.”

Ten nautical miles from the runway, when the plane should have been at 2,500 feet altitude, it was at 7,200, Mr. Khan said.

The landing gear was not down at the time of the attempted landing, the report said.

“The aircraft touched the runway surface on its engines,” it said. “Flight crew applied reverse engine power and initiated a braking action. Both engines scrubbed the runway at various locations, causing damage to both of them.”

The pilot pulled the airliner back up into the air to execute a “go-around.” But irreparable damage had already been done to both engines, causing them to fail. The plane was unable to stay aloft and crashed into a residential neighborhood, bursting into a huge fireball.

The crash damaged 29 houses, and the government will compensate the residents for their losses, the minister said.