ISLAMABAD: A plane crash which killed 97 people in Pakistan last month was because of human error by the pilots, who were discussing the coronavirus crisis during the landing, according to an initial report released Wednesday.
The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) plane crashed into a crowded residential area on May 22 after both engines failed as it approached Karachi airport, killing all but two people on board.
"The pilot, as well as the (air traffic) controller, didn't follow the standard rules," said Ghulam Sarwar Khan, the country's aviation minister, announcing the findings in parliament.
He said the pilots had been discussing the deadly virus as they attempted to land the Airbus A320 and had disengaged the craft's autopilot.
"The pilot and co-pilot were not focused and throughout they were having a conversation about corona. The [virus] was on their minds. Their families were affected and they were having a discussion about it," Khan added.
"Unfortunately the pilot was overconfident," the minister said.
The report found the plane was flying at more than twice the altitude it should have been when it approached the runway without the landing gear down.
Standard flight operating procedures were then ignored by the pilots and the air traffic controller, resulting in an aborted landing that heavily damaged the plane's engines.
The aircraft went down as it attempted a second landing, crashing into a residential area near the airport.
The investigation team, which included officials from the French government and the aviation industry, analysed cockpit data and voice recorders.
The full report is expected to be released at the end of the year, with advance analysis of the aircraft wreckage still ongoing.
The minister said the plane was "100 percent fit for flying, there was no technical fault".
The crash damaged around 29 houses, the minister said, adding that the government would compensate residents for losses.
The county's deadliest aviation accident in eight years came days after domestic commercial flights resumed following a two-month coronavirus lockdown.
Many passengers were on their way to spend the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr with loved ones.
Images from the scene showed buildings torn apart after the plane's wings sliced through rooftops, sending flames and plumes of smoke into the air.
In a rescue operation that lasted until the next day, firefighters pulled bodies from the wreckage still wearing seatbelts.
Nobody on the ground was killed.
Pakistan has a chequered military and civilian aviation safety record, with frequent plane and helicopter crashes over the years.
In 2016, a PIA plane burst into flames after one of its two turboprop engines failed while flying from the remote north to Islamabad, killing more than 40 people.
The deadliest air disaster in Pakistan was in 2010 when an Airbus A321 operated by private airline Airblue and flying from Karachi crashed into the hills of Islamabad as it came in to land, killing all 152 people on board.
An official report blamed the accident on a confused captain and a hostile cockpit atmosphere.
PIA, one of the world's leading airlines until the 1970s, now suffers from a sinking reputation due to frequent cancellations, delays and financial troubles.
It has been involved in numerous controversies over the years, including the jailing of a drunk pilot in Britain in 2013.