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Plane crashes into Sri Lankan plantation

A plane carrying Muslim pilgrims from Mecca to Indonesia crashes in Sri Lanka on this day in 1978, killing 183 people.

The Icelandic Airlines DC-8 was chartered by Garuda Indonesian Airways to carry Muslim pilgrims back to Indonesia from their trek to Mecca. The flight was scheduled to takeoff from Jeddah Airport in Saudi Arabia and land at Surabaya Airport in Indonesia, with a stopover in Sri Lanka to refuel and take on new crew members. The flight went smoothly until it began its approach to Colombo Airport in Katunayake, Sri Lanka. At 10:53 p.m., the pilot of the DC-8 requested the use of runway 22 and began a normal ILS (instrument landing system) approach. Thirty minutes later, the plane crashed into a rubber and coconut plantation.

A detailed investigation into the crash, using the recovered voice and data recorders, revealed that the pilots had made several small, yet crucial, errors. As the plane made its approach, the pilots failed to acknowledge the control tower and did not count down their altitude on the descent. Under most circumstances, this failure to monitor the plane’s so-called sink rate would not have affected the flight. However, the plane was actually descending too quickly as it came to the runway. At this point, the plane’s altimeter should have sounded a warning, but it had been incorrectly set to make a safety alert at 150 feet instead of 250 feet. So, by the time the pilots realized their descent was too rapid, it was too late to abort the landing.

The plane hit the tops of several coconut trees a mile short of the runway and then slammed into a field of rubber trees. Although the main fuselage stayed intact, a huge fireball erupted. Five firefighting units were immediately dispatched to the crash site, but they were unable to get close to the plane because of the density of the rubber trees. One hundred seventy five passengers and 8 crew members died in the crash and subsequent fire. Another 32 people suffered serious injuries. Miraculously, the front of the main cabin was not affected by the fire, allowing 47 people to walk away from the crash.

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