MIAMI – Late New Year’s day in 1978, Air India (AI) flight 855 rolled down runway 27 of Mumbai’s Santa Cruz Airport (BOM) bound for Dubai (XB).

Just seconds after liftoff, the mighty Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the first delivered to AI, saw itself crashing into the Arabian sea killing all 213 onboard. The tragedy goes down as the worst aviation accident in India besides the Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision.

January 1, 1978, was just another day for AI855 operated by a Boeing 747-237B bearing registration VT-EBD to make its run to Dubai in the UAE. Although the scheduled time of departure was in the morning that day, the actual departure was rescheduled to 20:15 due to a technical snag the aircraft had encountered a day earlier – which was a bird hit to the wing flap.

In under two minutes post-take-off, the crew of the scheduled passenger flight was instructed to report passing 8,000ft, to which the Captain gave his acknowledgment and also greeted the controller saying “Happy New Year to you, sir.” Seconds after the exchange of messages, the Boeing 747 entered into a dive crashing into the Arabian sea just three kilometers off the coast of Mumbai.

An Indian Navy Commander was one of the first to sight and report the incident, stating that the aircraft made a nosedive at a 45-degree bank and a loud bang upon impact. Local residents claim to have seen a fireball crash with an explosion. The Navy, Air force, and Coast Guard made it to the crash site within moments only to learn that no one had survived this nightmare of a crash.

There were 213 souls onboard AI855 of which 190 passengers, 20 Flight attendants, and 3 members of the cockpit crew: Captain Madan Lal Kukar (Age 51), who had nearly 18,000 flight hours; First Officer Indu Virmani (Age 43), a former Indian Air Force commander who had more than 4,500 flight hours; and Flight Engineer  Alfredo Faria (Age 53), had 11,000 flight hours, making him one of Air India’s most senior flight engineers at that time.

VT-EBD, the particular Jumbojet involved, was Air India’s first-ever and most prestigious Boeing 747 powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7J engines that had been delivered in April of 1971. It had an iconic “Emperor Ashoka” name that’s known to many aviation enthusiasts and a part of India’s aviation history.

Air India, Boeing 747-8 VT-ESN, sister aircraft of VT-EBD pictured above. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

Cause of the Accident

The investigation report states the most 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.”

As the aircraft made its initial climb The Attitude Director Indicator (ADI) displayed a right-bank indication, while the wings were actually level.

The captain then said: “What’s happened here, my instrument…”

The flight engineer however noticed the difference between the captain’s ADI and the third spare ADI. It was dark outside and there was no visual contact with the horizon and the captain rolled left after looking at his ADI.

As the aircraft rolled 40 degrees to the left, the Flight Engineer said to the Captain: “Don’t go by that one, don’t go by that one…” In no time the plane was at 108 degrees banking left and too late for correction which eventually fell from 2000ft into the shallow water of the coastline.

In a suit related to the crash, US Federal District Judge James M. Fitzgerald rejected charges of negligence against the Boeing Company, Lear Siegler Inc, the manufacturer of the attitude director indicator, and the Collins Radio division of Rockwell International, which manufactured the backup system, in a 139-page decision issued on November 1, 1985.

Captain Madan Kukar, according to Boeing attorney Steven C. Marshall, was “flying illegally under the influence of diabetic drugs, a condition compounded by his alcoholic intake and dieting in the 24 hours before the flight,” and not owing to mechanical faults. In 1986, the case was dismissed.

Blind flying. The pilot wears goggles blocking the colors transparent through the orange plastic sheet in front of him. The instructor wearing no goggles has an outside view tinted orange. Photo: By WikiRigaou – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sensory Illusions in Aviation

Regardless of any alleged illegalities found in the flight deck, there is no question that human senses aren’t built to cope with the stresses of flight. Pilots may become disoriented and lose their sense of perspective, resulting in a variety of illusions ranging from false horizons to sensory conflict with instrument data to misjudging height over water.

Illusions involving the semicircular and somatogyral canals of the vestibular system of the ear, which is responsible for the sense of balance in humans, are most common when external visual cues are incorrect or absent, and they cause illusory sensations of rotation. These include the leans, the graveyard spin and spiral, and the Coriolis illusion, of which the leans pertain to flight AI855.

This is the most typical flight illusion, and it is created by a quick return to wings-level flight after a gradual entry and extended application of bank that the pilot had gone unobserved. Because human exposure to a rotational acceleration of 1 degree per second or less is below the detection threshold of the semicircular canals, a pilot may be oblivious of such an attitude shift in the first place.

When rolling wings-level from this position, the aircraft may appear to be banking in the other way. A pilot will tend to roll back in the direction of the original bank in an attempt to re-establish the perception of a level attitude in response to such an illusion.

Featured image: Boeing 747-237B, Air-India VT-EBD “Emperor Ashoka”, AN0574902. Photo: Michel Gilliand (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons