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351 DIE IN MIDAIR COLLISION.

Byline: John F. Burns The New York Times

Indian aviation officials said that all 351 passengers and crew appeared to have been killed Tuesday night when a Saudi Arabian jumbo jet collided shortly after takeoff with a Kazakh Airlines plane approaching the New Delhi airport.

The death toll made it the third-deadliest air crash and the worst midair collision in aviation history.

Rescue teams searching by the light of burning wreckage reported at first that there were no survivors from the Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747 and the Kazakh Airlines Ilyushin 76, which collided at 5:10 a.m. PST, as night was falling in the area.

Officials at the scene said at midnight local time that villagers had reported ``three or four'' people alive in the wreckage immediately after the impact, and that all but one of them had died before rescue teams arrived. According to these unconfirmed accounts, the lone survivor was taken to a local hospital. But a later survey of local hospitals turned up no survivors.

The Press Trust of India, citing a passenger list, said those killed aboard the Saudi aircraft were mostly Indians, and also included 17 foreigners, including two Americans. Other foreigners aboard were said to have included nine Nepalese, three Pakistanis, and one each from Bangladesh, Britain and Saudi Arabia.

Kazakh officials told Reuters that the Ilyushin, arriving from the southern Kazakh city of Chimkent, had been chartered by a company in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and that most of the passengers aboard were Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot of a U.S. Air Force C-141 transport plane who was bringing in supplies for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi said he had seen the immediate aftermath of the collision.

``We noticed out of our right hand a large cloud lit up with an orange glow from within the clouds,'' the pilot, who declined to give his name, said in a telephone news conference with reporters at the Pentagon. The glow increased in intensity, he said, and then he saw ``two fireballs'' emerge from the cloud and explode into a field of fire when they hit the ground about a minute later.

By midnight, the police said they had recovered 275 bodies from a wreckage path that was spread over an area about six miles wide near the village of Charkhi Dadri, in a thickly populated farming district west of New Delhi in the state of Haryana. But there were no reports of any casualties on the ground.

There was widespread speculation about a possible failure in air traffic control procedures at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, of a misunderstanding of controllers' instructions or a misreading of an altimeter by one of the pilots.

But at a news conference about three hours after the crash, H.S. Khola, the Indian director of civil aviation, said: ``We are ourselves not in full possession of the facts. Nobody knows exactly what happened as of now. We will get to the bottom of this and find out who was responsible.''

Khola said the collision occurred when the Saudi plane, bound for the Saudi cities of Dhahran and Jidda, was climbing after takeoff from the New Delhi airport with 312 passengers and crew. About seven minutes after takeoff, he said, the Saudi aircraft collided with the Kazakstan Airlines plane, an aircraft configured for cargo that had flown from Chimkent with 39 passengers and crew.

Another Indian official said that air traffic controllers noticed ``two blips merging on the radar screen but not separating'' before both blips disappeared.

Khola said the Saudi aircraft, carrying large numbers of Indians traveling to jobs in Saudi Arabia and Indian Muslims making pilgrimages to Mecca, had taken off at 5:03 a.m. PST.

``It was asked to climb to 14,000 feet, as per air traffic control information, and the Kazakh aircraft was asked to descend to 15,000 feet,'' Khola said. ``At about (5:10 a.m. PST), radar blips of both aircraft were lost.''

Although there are more than 4 million takeoffs of civilian aircraft around the world every day, midair collisions are extremely rare, and until Tuesday there was no midair collision on the list of the world's 10 worst air accidents. Aviation experts said improvements in air traffic control had vastly cut the risk of midair collision since the worst incident of its kind in the United States, the collision Dec. 16, 1960, of a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-8 in fog over New York harbor.

That crash, which sent one of the aircraft plunging into the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, killed 134 people.

Indian and international aviation officials said that one factor that might have contributed to the crash was that all takeoffs and landings to the New Delhi airport occur along a single flight corridor.

For years, Indian pilots and air traffic controllers have said that the absence of other routes into the airport creates hazards, with incoming and outgoing aircraft sometimes flying in opposite directions on the same path with an airspace separation of as little as 1,000 feet.

Khola said the 1,000-foot separations met international flight safety standards. But the Indian Air Traffic Controllers' Guild issued a statement saying the collision ``could have been averted if only there were separate arrival and departure routes at Delhi airport.''

The statement said that the controllers had been ``making requests for a very long time'' for separate corridors, but that the Indian air force, which uses one side of the airport for a military airfield, had resisted the proposal. ``The air force headquarters is not willing to open up more sky for civil aviation,'' the guild's statement said.

The controllers' statement said that the Saudi and Kazakh planes had been ``under radar control'' at the time of the accident and had been advised of each others' respective positions.

But international aviation experts said that outdated radar equipment is still in use at the New Delhi airport while new equipment is being installed, and that it is possible that as a result controllers would not have had a continuous readout on their screens of the altitude, direction and velocity of each aircraft.

``The problem with Delhi is that the radar is antiquated,'' said Eric Moody, a retired pilot who was a Boeing 747 captain with British Airways.

CAPTION(S):

Photo, map, box

PHOTO Relatives of passengers gather Tuesday at the New Delhi, India, airport after a midair crash killed 351.

Associated Press

Map: In-flight collision in India

Box: Deadliest crashes
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Nov 13, 1996
Words:1091
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