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NEW DELHI: Air traffic controllers handling the Vistara and Air India flights that came dangerously close in Mumbai airspace last Wednesday (Feb 7) have been suspended. Investigators are probing if in those tense seconds — when the two planes with 261 passengers on them — had to be pulled apart, there was some confusion in the controller’s coordination with the two cockpits which were both manned by women at that time.
AI’s Airbus A-319 was enroute from Mumbai to Bhopal as AI 631 and Vistara’s A-320 Neo was flying from Delhi to Pune as UK 997. “The planes were barely seconds away from each other. Vistara was descending from its assigned level of 29,000 feet to 27,100 feet where an AI flight was coming in the opposite direction. There may have been confusion between the ATC and Vistara cockpit — which at that time had a woman co-pilot at the controls and the captain had taken a toilet break. The AI flight had a woman commander, Captain Anupama Kohli. Maybe there was a mix-up in communication in those tense seconds like what altitude instruction is being given to which lady. This has to be seen,” said sources.
Amid this confusion, AI’s Captain Anupama Kohli — a senior commander of A-320 family with experience of over 20 years — saved the day. “She saw the Vistara aircraft approaching in her direction and could hear the ATC asking UK 997 ‘why are you on this level?’ The Vistara lady pilot told ATC that ‘no, you told me to come to this level’.
She was monitoring this. Then she saw the Vistara plane closing in from her left side right towards her. The red sign went up in her cockpit and she got to know the Vistara plane was crossing her level ‘now’. Instantly, a resolution advisory (RA) came — ‘climb, climb, climb.” Then as per RA, Captain Kohli immediately climbed and turned right to steer clear of the Vistara plane,” said sources.
The Vistara plane at that time was being flown by the lady co-pilot. The male commander had taken a toilet break and as per rules, an Airhostess was in the cockpit as two crew members have to be always present in a cockpit. Luckily AI went up and Vistara came down, to be 600 feet away from each other and then flew away safely “clear of conflict”.
AI has applauded the presence of mind shown by Captain Anupama Kohli. Vistara did not comment on the issue as the matter is being investigated, while maintaining its crew operated exactly as per rules without any violation. Airline sources say its crew was asked to be at 27,000 feet and that is why they were there.