As a Kazakh cargo plane flew head-on toward a Saudi jetliner, controllers told its pilot to watch out for the 747 in the clouds ahead. The pilot asked how close it was.
“Fourteen miles,” a controller said.
Seconds later: “Thirteen miles.”
The pilot’s acknowledgment of that message was the last word New Delhi airport flight controllers had from either aircraft before they hit and spun to earth in spectacular twin fireballs, taking 349 people to their deaths.
The exchanges, in transcripts released Wednesday, indicate the planes did not see each other in time and hint that the pilots were misled by their instruments or misunderstood the tower’s directions. They were supposed to pass with a 1,000-foot difference in altitude - instructions that the Saudi plane’s pilots never confirmed, the transcripts show.
The Saudi Boeing 747 was seven minutes into its flight and the Kazakh plane was descending for its final approach into Indira Gandhi International Airport when the collision occurred Tuesday about 60 miles southwest of New Delhi.
Whether there was a last-minute evasive maneuver by either plane was unclear, but India’s top civil aviation ministry official said the crash was not direct.
“It was not a head-on collision,” Yogesh Chandra said at a news conference. “The cockpit and fuselage of the Kazakh airliner was found intact.”
Searchers retrieved hundreds of bodies from wreckage strewn in a six-mile area around Charkhi Dadri.
Many of the victims of the Saudi Airlines flight that carried 312 passengers and crew apparently were Indian workers returning to jobs in the Middle East or making the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca; the Kazakh plane carrying 37 people had been chartered by a clothing company in Kazakhstan.
A weeping Irene Colaso said she identified her 20-year-old daughter Sanim, a flight attendant on the Saudi plane, by her feet - the rest of her body was burned beyond recognition.
Searchers found the flight data recorders of both planes Wednesday but only the cockpit voice recorder of the Kazakh plane. The recordings were not made public immediately.
But flight control transcripts showed that the airport tower instructing the Kazakh plane to fly at 15,000 feet and the Saudi plane, which was ascending, to level off at 14,000 feet. The Saudi plane never acknowledged the order.
The tower then tells the Kazakh plane’s pilot that the Saudi aircraft is 14 miles away: “Identified traffic 12 o’clock reciprocal. Saudi Boeing 747, 14 miles. Report in sight.”
The Kazakh pilot replied: “Report how many miles?
“Fourteen miles now,” the tower said.
Moments later, the controller told the pilot that the Saudi plane was just 13 miles away, flying at 14,000 feet.