Air India plane crashes, killing at least 160 people

-- An Air India flight from Dubai crashed Saturday morning in the city of Mangalore after apparently overshooting the runway, killing at least 160 people.

Televised images showed rescuers carrying limp bodies up a wooded slope and wreckage still burning hours after the crash, with bodies and the nearby ground covered with white foam emergency workers used to fight the blaze.

There were reportedly 166 passengers and crew on the Boeing 737-800 jet, which was believed to be 2 or 3 years old, a relatively new addition to the company’s fleet.

The rescue operation was complicated by rain and the topography: Flight IX-892 went down in a wooded valley about six miles from the runway.

The cause of the accident was not immediately known. An investigation was underway, and authorities were searching the debris field for the “black box” flight recorder.

Air traffic control reportedly received no distress message or other communication from the pilot suggesting the aircraft was having mechanical or operational problems. The pilot was reportedly a Russian expatriate, and the copilot was Indian.

The runway at the Mangalore airport is relatively short and has what’s known as a “tabletop” layout, with a flattened area carved out of mountainous terrain overlooking a valley, giving pilots a relatively small margin of error.

The airport, which opened to international flights four years ago, was shut down after the disaster, which occurred about 6:15 a.m. local time.

“This is a major calamity,” V.S. Acharya, home minister for the state of Karnataka, said to the CNN-IBN television network.

Six people who were pulled out alive were rushed to a government hospital with a burn unit, about 10 miles away. TV pictures showed a fireman carrying a body up a slope with difficulty, a colleague pushing him to help him ascend.

One survivor, Umer Farooq, said after being admitted to the hospital that “there was a loud noise, followed by fire.”

“I managed to jump out of a broken window,” he said.

TV images showed more than 15 firetrucks, 20 ambulances and 100 rescue workers standing at the periphery of the wreckage, with dense smoke billowing from the small valley and part of a mangled wing resting almost vertically on a slope.

The crash could be the deadliest in India since a November 1996 midair collision between a Saudi airliner and a Kazakh cargo plane near New Delhi that killed 349 people.

Air India, a former monopoly with an aging fleet and a poor on-time record, has struggled in recent years to compete with lower-cost private airlines as the industry has been deregulated. Air India Express, its low-cost arm, is part of its effort to respond to a changing competitive landscape as it struggles under a $3.3-billion debt load.

In October, the airline hit the headlines after pilots and a flight crew got into a fistfight in front of startled passengers.

The state-owned airline has had several mishaps over the years. Safety expert Mohan Ranganathan, a former Air India pilot, said recently that India badly needs an independent regulator and safety board.

In June 2008, Air India Flight IC-162 from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, overshot the Mumbai airport by 45 miles after its pilots fell asleep. They were jolted awake when air traffic controllers caused a loud buzzer to go off in the cockpit.

Flights from Dubai to other parts of India tend to be crowded with Indians returning from manual labor and service jobs in the Middle East, as well as with high-tech professionals and traders.

Air travel has rebounded in India and the region after last year’s slump as economies have rebounded. India saw about 4.1 million air travelers in January, a 23% increase, according to the Civil Aviation Ministry.

India is expected to be among the fastest-growing air travel markets in the world over the next 10 years, Airbus, the world’s biggest plane maker, said in a recent statement.

Over the next 20 years, Indian carriers will need 1,030 new aircraft worth $138 billion, it said.

Anshul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.