Instrument Malfunction to Blame for Air India Flight 855 Crash

An Air India Boeing 747 jet crashes into the sea just after takeoff from a Bombay airport on this day in 1978, killing all 213 people on board.

The crash was apparently the result of pilot error and equipment malfunction.

Air India Flight 855 left Santacruz Airport (now called Chatrapati Airport) in Bombay, India (modern-day Mumbai), in the early evening of January 1. The jet being used for the flight was the first 747 acquired by Air India in 1971. It was dubbed the "Emperor Ashoka" and advertised as "Your palace in the sky." Headed for Dubai, the jet took off down runway 27, which ends less than a mile away from Arabian Sea. It carried 23 crew members and 190 passengers.

Air India Flight 855 was a scheduled passenger flight that crashed in the evening of 1 January 1978 about 4 kilometers (1.8 statute miles) off the coast of Bandra, Bombay (now Mumbai), India. All 213 lives on board were lost. The crash is believed to have been caused by the Captain becoming spatially disoriented after the failure of one of the flight instruments in the cockpit.

The aircraft involved was a Boeing 747-237B, registration VT-EBD, named the "Emperor Ashoka". It was the first 747 delivered to Air India. When it was delivered in April 1971, Air India had proclaimed it as the "747th wonder of the world", and in keeping with their Maharaja motif, used the tagline "Your Palace in the Sky" to describe this new aircraft with a detailed external paint scheme and interesting interior design.

The departure was from Bombay's Santacruz Airport, (now called Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport). The plane's destination was Dubai International Airport in Dubai, with Captain Madan L Kukar as the operating pilot.

Approximately one minute after takeoff from runway 27 the pilot made a scheduled right turn while over the Arabian Sea, after which the aircraft briefly returned to a normal level position. Soon the plane began rolling to the left, and never regained level flight.

The cockpit voice recorder recovered from the wreckage revealed the Captain made a verbal comment about his Attitude Indicator (AI) having "toppled", meaning that it was still showing the aircraft in a right bank. The First Officer, whose presumably functional AI was now showing a left bank, said that his AI was also toppled, but there is some belief that the Captain mistakenly took this to mean that both primary AIs were indicating a right bank. It was after sunset and the aircraft was flying over a dark Arabian Sea, leaving the aircrew unable to visually cross-check their AI instrument readings with the actual horizon outside the cockpit windows.

The 747 had a third backup AI in the center instrument panel between the two pilots, and the transcripts of the cockpit conversation show that the Flight Engineer may have been attempting to direct the Captain's attention to that third AI, or perhaps to another instrument called the Turn and Bank Indicator, just five seconds before the plane impacted the sea.

The Captain's mistaken perception of the aircraft situation resulted in his using the flight controls to add more left bank and left rudder, causing the aircraft to rapidly lose altitude. Just 101 seconds after leaving the runway the jet impacted into the Arabian Sea at an estimated 35 degree nose-down angle. There were no survivors among the 190 passengers and 23 crew members.

The partially recovered wreckage revealed no evidence of explosion, fire, or any electrical or mechanical failure, and an initial theory of sabotage was ruled out.
The investigation concluded that the probable cause was "due to the irrational control inputs by the captain following complete unawareness of the attitude as his AI had malfunctioned. The crew failed to gain control based on the other flight instruments."
U.S. Federal District Judge James M. Fitzgerald, in a 139-page decision issued November 11985, rejected charges of negligence against the Boeing Company, Lear Siegler Inc, and the Collins Division of Rockwell International Corporation in a suit related to the crash