Runway 34 review: Sky, runway, or inquiry proceedings, Ajay Devgn runs into rough weather everywhere

Inspired by true events, the Ajay Devgn film adopts a more dramatic approach in dealing with a flight safety issue and its subsequent investigation.

Rating: 2.5 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

“Weather and man both making a mistake is a recipe for disaster,” says a seasoned aviation journalist travelling on the turbulent Skyline 777 flight. Next moment, the panicky co-passengers lash out at the man for his negative and ill-timed comment.  Open conversations, views are not always taken sportingly.

This reviewer is no aviation expert, and so we banked on the 48-page report [available online] on the serious incident involving Jet Airways flight 9W-555 on 17 August, 2015.  The Boeing 737 aircraft took off nicely from Doha, Qatar, looking good to arrive at its destination Cochin [now Kochi], until the weather gods played havoc resulting in the flight resorting to multiple Go-Arounds before finally landing onto Runway 32 of Thiruvananthapuram International Airport [aka Trivandrum International Airport] at dawn on 18 August, 2015. It refueled and few hours later safely landed in its original destination Cochin.

Fortunately, there was not a single casualty among the 150 people onboard flight 9W-555 [including 8 crew members, 2 pilots and 6 cabin crew].  It was a close shave but all’s well that ends well doesn’t work in the real world. After a year-long inquiry, the AAIB [The Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau] submitted a final 48-page report to the regulatory board DGCA [Directorate General of Civil Aviation].  The two pilots were naturally suspended in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

After going through the 48-page report, the layman in me was able to decipher few important observations. Firstly, it is clearly stated in the Foreword that, “The investigation is conducted not to apportion blame or to assess individual or collective responsibility. The sole objective is to draw lessons from this incident which may help to prevent such future accidents or incidents.”

Like any professional set-up, the identity of the PIC [The pilot in command], FO [First officer or Co-pilot] and ATC [Air Traffic Control] officials at Cochin and Thiruvananthapuram have not been disclosed. Back then, the 40-year-old pilot had 7000 flying hours, including close to 3000 hours as a PIC.  The 25-year-old FO had a flying experience of some 1465 hours.

The report doesn’t blame any person per se, but in its findings, it does question certain decision making of the key professionals involved in the incident.  One thing crystal clear was that there was no technical, mechanical problem with the aircraft that was manufactured in 2012 and pressed into service shortly.  The BA [Breath analyzer] test of the crew was not carried out at the diverted station [Thiruvananthapuram] but the one done at the final destination Cochin came negative.  The report made three key recommendations :-

1. DGCA may advise Jet Airways to define the policy on the number of approaches and missed approaches in inclement weather conditions.

2. DGCA may advise Jet Airways to define the criteria and processes for redesignation of destination alternates during flight.

3. DGCA may advise Jet Airways to include Low Fuel scenarios and decisions making training exercises during refresher LOFT [Line Orientated Flight Training] simulator training sessions.

Some 10 days ago, we spoke to a seasoned pilot regarding this flight. S/he was of the view that the episode could have been simply averted if the PIC and FO had stuck to Bengaluru [earlier Bangalore] as the first choice for alternate destination. The pilot also disclosed how Cochin and Thiruvananthapuram are tricky sectors where the weather can play truant especially in monsoons.  We’re told that many pilots prefer Bengaluru, Chennai or Coimbatore as alternate destination while encountering inclement weather in Cochin or Thiruvananthapuram. So, it is always wise to carry more fuel.

9W-555 carried enough fuel for alternate destination to Cochin or Bangalore, but the six Go-Arounds left it with just 349 kilograms of fuel before they finally landed on an unsighted runway 32 [direction on a compass] at Thiruvananthapuram.  Our pilot friend mentioned another important thing how these things happen, but never is one villainized neither is one hailed a hero when there is zero casualty. After seeing Runway 34 [2022] trailer, s/he felt that the film will most likely add masala to spice things up.

For the media and the common public, the matter perhaps died down within few days of the incident, especially since there was no casualty. The PIC and FO may have been hailed as heroes, especially by the 142 passengers, and by some section of the media. What happened to these professionals in the aftermath of the final report rightly remains unknown.

With Jet Airways shutting operations in 2019, 2022 is a perhaps a good time to ponder over the incident. So, actor, director Ajay Devgn and his writer Sandeep Kewlani use the 2015 episode to build their Runway 34 [North West direction].  The film plays it safe by clearing that though it is inspired by true events, all its characters are fictitious and any resemblance to any person(s) living or dead, or any incident is purely coincidental.

The first in line of fiction is a Skyline airway where seasoned Captain Vikrant Khanna [Ajay Devgn] and a young FO Tanya Albuquerque [Rakul Preet Singh] are flying together for the first time operating the DXB-COK [Dubai-Cochin] sector. A turbulent flight is not limited to Hollywood alone. Comparisons with Denzel Washington’s Flight [2012], that was loosely based on the plane crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in the year 2000, was inevitable. [The Tom Hanks-starrer biographical drama Sully (2016) gained much respect among critics, cinephiles, and the aviation community as a film that is as close to real aviation action]

While Flight [2012] and Runway 34’s [2022] journey are poles apart, Devgn’s Captain Vikrant Khanna and Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker have few shades common in them. Both men are little cocky, they love smoking and drinking. Given how Devgn himself is a regular smoker, he seems to be reveling in the habits of Captain Khanna.  The man is brave enough to hold a cigarette in his mouth standing at the gate of a Dubai hotel, with the No Smoking signboard behind. When reminded of it by a guard, Khanna says, “Sirf mooh mein hain, jalaya toh nahi” (It’s only in my mouth, but I haven’t lit it).  He repeats that couple of times during the turbulent flight.  The early background soundtrack refers to Khanna as the Alpha Man. Here is a man who knows all professional information, safety manuals, policies by heart.

Ajay Devgn smoking in a still from Runway 34 [2022]

Pilots have a certain character to them. They are usually a confident lot, good in communication skills, living the high life, but even the cockiest of pilots would envy the swag of Captain Khanna. Writer Kewlani and Devgn seem comfortable with it. Maybe the humble audience too would cheer this captain, but we felt that the character is a little farfetched. Devgn’s love affair with smoking worryingly transforms onto the screen. But if the Central Board of Film Certification [CBFC] has stipulated that a smoking scene is to be accompanied with a ‘smoking is injurious to health’ banner, then Devgn is all happier to flag that message multiple times in his film.

An individual’s personal space ought to be respected, but the civil aviation sector is very particular on the conduct of its staff and crew in a professional environment. Any act violating the code of conduct has led to stringent action against the offender.  We’ve had such cases before, but Captain Khanna is an interesting case, even for fiction.  It’s his professional conduct that is not likely to win him fans among real pilots, in-flight crew or aviation officials.  

English is the primary professional language used by most airline staff in the country.  It’s bizarre then when we hear Khanna tell the panicky passengers in Hindi, “Aapko jhatke lagne wale hain” (You will experience turbulence]. Khanna and another crew member’s conduct could raise few brows. Then again this is fiction and any resemblance is purely coincidental.

Maybe, the cocky image helps to raise suspicions around the lead character.  Later, the man looks vulnerable during the interrogation and subsequent hearings with viewers getting a sense that Captain Khanna is unlikely to escape the truth here.  It’s surprising how Khanna gets wide media coverage, many hailing him as a hero. That contradicts the confidentiality maintained by DGCA, concerned airline, AAIB in such cases.  Despite our best efforts, we didn’t find any article online naming the two pilots of 9W-555. Perhaps it was the aviation journalist passenger of Skyline 777 who spilled the beans on the cockpit crew.

That’s cool in the name of fiction, but the blind manoeuvre [with a cigarette in mouth] leading to an edge-of-the-cliff landing, and later its subsequent justification via a simulator demonstration, is a bit too hard to digest.  You admire the defiance of Khanna, with Devgn doing a fairly competent job, but the actor, director could have trimmed certain drama, idiosyncrasies to his character. “Agar pilot zameen par pair rakhega, toh flight kaise udaega?” (How can a pilot fly with his feet on the ground?). Such line is likely to draw cheers from the masses, but will mostly amuse the flying community.

India has a good civil aviation record, but the blame game is often seen during crashes in Indian Air Force, particularly the ones involving old Russian MIG aircrafts.  Aamir Khan, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra used one such tale to create their Rang De Basanti [2006] moment but totally ignored the other side.

What’s commendable about Runway 34 [2022] is how Devgn and Kewlani respect the key findings of the AAIB report on 9W-555. Nature apart, it examines the human action/inaction, the trouble shooting methods, error of omission, if any.  Runway 34 opens the Man or Machine debate.

Boman Irani (l) in a still from Runway 34 [2022]

Given the financial stakes at hand, threat of huge compensation, corporates mostly pray for a human error over mechanical one.  “Every time a pilot is blamed and if he dies, then it becomes more convenient to pin the blame on him,” Captain Khanna defends his ilk in the hearing.  A man is usually no match against a corporate.  Khanna faces the wrath of Skyline owner Suri [Boman Irani]. Despite the corporate viciousness, good ol’ Boman Irani often fails to convince us in a negative role.  Some faces are too sincere to be bad.

Rakul Preet Singh as FO Tanya Albuquerque in Runway 34 [2022]

Save for a vital suggestion over a better alternate destination, Tanya Albuquerque [Rakul Preet Singh] bears a petrified look for the best part of the turbulent flight.  In fact, even during that key advice, she lacks confidence. The only thing that she says confidently is correcting people when they pronounce her surname wrong.  Also, it belies belief that with a mandatory CVR [Cockpit Voice Recorder] in place, why would any PIC ask a female FO about her single status? A relatively young pilot getting nervous while agreeing to disagree with a senior commander is acceptable, but surely as an FO, Tanya could have done more to prove her competence. Singh though is natural in those nervy, tension-filled moments.

Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Runway 34 [2022]

The veteran Amitabh Bachchan comes into the mix when the inquiry into the Skyline incident commences. Narayan Vedant [Bachchan] is a no-nonsense senior AAIB officer who specializes in finding the human error, if any, in such incidents.  Though he takes no pride, but he is very cold when firing people.  Vedant acknowledges that Khanna is a tough nut to crack, but he’s determined to break Tanya and him down.  Vedant is too authoritative, intimidating in his tone thereby reducing the proceedings to a cliched Bollywood court drama.  Apart from the aviation expertise, he loves mocking pilots and other crew for their lack of Hindi. Vedant can be a bit overbearing at times, but Bachchan simply obliges his character.

While Runway 34 [2022] veers more towards drama, but Devgn the director shows a marked improvement from his previous works – U Me Aur Hum [2008], Shivaay [2016].  A turbulent story doesn’t warrant turbulent direction.  A better handling of the lead character, and a more measured approach to the investigation could have propelled Runway 34 to bigger heights.  The film though has admirable background score by Amar Mohile. The in-flight designs and the VFX instill a sense of genuine fear of the turbulence, many Go Arounds during the flight. Some of the passengers are obnoxious, but civil aviation sees all kinds of passengers.  We recalled a real incident where Indian passengers were mocked for trying to gather their cash, jewels and other valuables from their handbags placed in the-flight cabinets when their plane was experiencing serious turbulence.

Though it has its flaws, Runway 34 [2002] is a still a refreshing start in dealing with unconventional, technical subjects in Bollywood.

Runway 34 hits the theatres on 29 April. Watch the trailer below.

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