A few minutes after take-off from Newark airport to Mumbai on July 13, the left engine of Air India's Boeing 777 was on fire.
The pilots were unaware of it; since like in all cases when destiny has made dark plans for you, the systems in the cockpit malfunctioned. Passengers and the ATC saw the fire, the pilot was alerted and panic ensued.
There were 300 passengers, 15 crew. For Capt Gautam Verma and his crew, 2nd Commander Capt Niranjan Singh & First Officers Capt Pankaj Wadhawan & Capt Shilpika Das, the choices were limited. Almost all the choices before them was likely to end in disaster.
Choice one: The plane had to be brought back to the airport. But the weight of the fuel wouldn't allow a safe landing. The plane was likely to disintegrate or turn into a flying inferno due to huge quantities of highly inflammable aviation turbine fuel. This meant that the plane had to land at higher speed, of around 370 km/hour. Also, it had to be done with one engine.
Choice two: Fly higher and discard much of the fuel according to standard operating procedures and then attempt a landing. This would take about 70 minutes but there was less chance of the plane bursting into flames on landing.
According to Captan G Bakshi, retired pilot, the immediate landing back, of course, had its own problems. "Due to the very high landing weight, the aircraft will need to be landed at a much higher speed. The immediate anxiety of the pilots in this case would have been three fold. Firstly, will the airplane stop in the available runway length, landing at about 200 Knots (which is 370 km/hr), and the minimum speed required at the weight. Secondly, will the landing gear take the load of landing at such a high speed and weight (85 tonnes more than the maximum design landing weight).
"Thirdly, they were flying on one engine, which has its own problems of aircraft handling and control. Captain Verma and his team took the decision to land instantly. The fire in one engine would have forced this decision. One hour to dump fuel and then get back to approach was a tough task. With one engine and the weight it was an almost impossible task."
According to a senior AI official, the pilots finally landed safely on one engine with tyres taking the heavy load and getting flat after landing.
The 10 minutes it took to turn the plane back were tense. What awaited the plane was not a landing strip but an abyss of tragedy. Thirty-five minutes after take-off, Capt Verma landed the plane at a high speed of around 370 km/hr. To avoid the heavyweight plane from suddenly dropping, the tyres punctured immediately but rolled for some more time before stopping on the runway.
The expertise of Capt Verma saved what would have been a terrible tragedy. The lives of 315 people were saved. There are not many instances in aviation history when such a landing has been carried out.