Aviation safety doesn't seem to be an important criterion. If we truly care about accidents, we would find out the true causes. Not rig or fudge facts…

Be perfectly resigned, perfectly unconcerned; then alone can you do any true work. No eyes can see the real forces; we can only see the results. Put out self, forget it; just let God work, it is His business.

Swami Vivekananda

Ours is a country with a base in Vedas and mythology. The Rig Veda is the oldest of the four Vedas, written more than 3,000 years back. But in the present century, a modern version RIG-Veda has been written by the civil aviation authorities in India. The best example is the event on May 8, 2007 when a private jet aircraft belonging to a business house smashed into a wall while landing in heavy rain at Indore. By all definitions it was a pure accident. But, to the experts in our civil aviation authority, it was written off as a ‘minor incident'. On board, to carry out the proficiency check of the pilot, was the Chief Flight Operations Inspector of the Director General of Civil Aviation. The word “accident” was redefined as a minor incident. Aviation safety enters the realms of mythology! The registration of the aircraft, ARV, could well be the abbreviation for the title of the article.

November 28, 1979. An Air New Zealand flight with 237 sightseers and a crew of 20 on board crashed into Mt. Erebus, a volcano in Antarctic. Last month, the airline apologised to all those affected who did not receive appropriate support and compassion from the company following the incident.

The initial investigation blamed the pilots for the fatal crash. A subsequent inquiry by Justice Mahon made one of the most significant findings in investigation: He found that airline executives and senior (management) pilots engaged in a conspiracy to whitewash the inquiry, famously accusing them of “an orchestrated litany of lies” by covering up evidence and lying to investigators. Mahon found that in the original report, the investigator had a poor grasp of the flying involved in jet airline operations. The investigation techniques were revealed as lacking in rigour, allowing for errors and avoidable gaps in knowledge to occur in reports. Consequently, the investigator entirely missed the importance of the flight plan change and the rare meteorological conditions of Antarctica. Had the pilots been informed of the flight plan change, the fatal crash would have been avoided.

Justice Mahon was a much-maligned man after this report, due to the influence wielded by many in the airlines and the government. Perseverance by the families of the dead resulted in the truth being the ultimate winner. In March 2009, Justice Mahon was posthumously awarded the Jim Collins Memorial Award by the New Zealand Airline Pilots Association for exceptional contributions to air safety, “in forever changing the general approach used in transport accidents investigations worldwide.”

Indian aviation safety needs a Justice Mahon-like figure. The procrastination and cover-ups in various incidents and accidents makes us wonder if safety exists, at all. Since the beginning of this century, we have seen every aspect of Indian aviation getting rigged. True to our mythological bearings, civil aviation takes a ‘Kumbakarnan' avatar. They think that sleeping over investigations or actions will make people forget the reality and continue in their dreams and myths. The mythological figure might be famous for his ‘six month sleep cycle' but his true character was an epitome of virtues, integrity, gratitude, valour and bravery. These qualities are, sadly, lacking in our system.

Contrasting pictures

The aviation systems in the US and India project contrasting perspectives on safety. One believes in seeking the truth, providing lessons to prevent a recurrence, transparency and independence of aviation safety investigation and that safety of passengers is paramount. The other believes in divine grace, priority for commercial interests of airlines, stonewalling and procrastination. The years that Americans have spent in Vietnam have made them understand a folk saying from that country: “A grief shared by many is half a grief. A joy shared is twice a joy”. Our aviation authorities have a different version of fairytale endings: “And if they didn't live happily ever after, that's nothing to do with you and me”.

Two events in recent past highlight the glaring differences between the two systems.

1. On October 21, 2009, a Northwest Airline flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis overshot the destination by over 150 miles. There was no radio contact for 91 minutes according to the investigators. The pilots voluntarily disclosed that they were involved in a “heated discussion on company matters” and they were both working on their laptops. Several radio calls and messages sent on company message system were ignored. On October 28, 2009, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration ), the Regulator in the US, revoked the licenses of both pilots for endangering the safety of the aircraft and all on board. One week is all it took for them to act.

2. On October 3, 2009, the crew of the Air India flight 884 enacted a mid-air drama. The fist fight that ensued in the cockpit while the aircraft was flying over Pakistani airspace and violated every single norm of flight safety is a perfect example of our wonderful safety system. The fact that the crew continued the fight even after landing and medical attention was required to treat the injuries to a few of the crew would have shocked anyone in the safety world. The airline and the Regulator are still dilly-dallying on action. All that has been achieved by the October 31, 2009 is the rebuttal of the air hostess charge of sexual harassment! This serious incident was not reported, either by the crew or the airline, to the Regulator.

Aviation safety is a potent subject in America while it is an impotent one in India. We are impotent because we have an ineffective hierarchy — Ministry, Legislators and Regulator controlling aviation. Here again, a comparison of the two systems will highlight the glaring difference.

On February 12, 2009, a Colgan Air turboprop flight crashed on approach to Buffalo International airport, killing all on board. The investigation findings threw up several issues concerning the training, experience levels of the crew and fatigue. Concerned with the findings, a law was brought in the US Congress on aviation safety. They have made it mandatory that the minimum experience levels for being in the cockpit of a passenger airliner is 1500 hours and the highest category of license, Airline Transport Pilots License.

In India, our requirements are a mere 200 hours for a copilot with the lowest category of license for commercial operation — the CPL (Commercial Pilots License ), and for an expatriate captain the experience levels have been specified as just 100 hours as a captain on the type of aircraft he is being contracted to fly! The legislators have not bothered to raise this as a safety issue but spend their time on trivial issues like their class of travel. Safety is not an important criteria.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are independent. When serious safety infringements are noted, the airline is reprimanded with a severe fine and warnings. The watchdog factor prevails, barring a few aberrations. The NTSB is totally independent and their focus is entirely on finding the real cause for the accident or incident and make recommendations to prevent a future occurrence. Their reports and findings are public knowledge. The time frame of the reports are almost immediate when the data is available. The investigations are total and transparent.

Contrast this with what we have in India. First we “deny”. Then we delay, dilute the findings with trivia and then, boast that we have one of the safest aviation systems in the world. There is no accountability or transparency. The statements of Justice Mahon is a common factor in many of our investigations.

Lack of action

The year 2009 has thrown up several near disasters in Indian aviation. We have witnessed three near collisions on ground in Mumbai airport. Recently, a jet with 154 passengers almost crashed in Mumbai's shortened runway. Pilots have been reporting for duty in inebriated state on a regular basis. Pilots are operating passenger flights with invalid licenses and ratings. The only action that is visible from the authorities is the constant rigging of several issues. When the inevitable crash does take place, we can take solace in Jesus Christ's words, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they are doing”.

The authorities are under the false sense of belief that nothing has happened to warrant proactive action. They would do well to read what Bryan O'Connor, Deputy associate administrator, Space Shuttle of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, said in an interview in January 1996. During the 10{+t}{+h} anniversary meet on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident, which happened on January 28, 1986, he said: We fooled ourselves into thinking this thing wouldn't crash. When I was in astronaut training I asked, ‘what is the likelihood of another accident?' The answer I got was: one in 10,000, with an asterisk. The asterisk meant, ‘we don't know.'

When countries care for loss of lives in an accident in air or space, their conscience rankles even after 10 or 30 years. For a country like ours, where divine grace and destiny is the order of the day, loss of life become just a Karma. Swami Vivekananda would not have realised that his sayings would take a new meaning, with an asterisk!

More In: Magazine | Features