The recent air crash in Mangalore was a tragedy waiting to happen. The pathetic security system, the negligence of the pilots and the flouting of safety norms both by the airlines and the regulatory authorities are just some of the factors crying out for attention. The tragedy brings home the realisation that we don't value human lives or learn from past experiences. CAPTAIN A RANGANATHAN takes a hard-hitting look at the facts.

The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience.

Mahatma Gandhi

We were exposed to two tragic events during the past couple of months. One was the fatal crash of the Air India Express flight in Mangalore in which 158 persons lost their lives.

The other was the court verdict on the punishment to the guilty involved in the Bhopal tragedy. The legal luminary who appeared on behalf of Union Carbide, Fali Nariman, when the punishment was diluted initially, had this to say: “As the poet says: ‘We look before and after and pine for what is not'.” The poet was Shelley.

Why do we consider life so cheap? Why is nobody accountable? We conveniently forget to weep for the dead and we fear no consequence. The reason — the judiciary is too soft on the establishment. We need a proactive and “human-minded” judiciary. Irrespective of what the findings of the ‘court of Inquiry' are, the following serious pointers cannot be ignored.

Airports Authority of India

In November 2007, a workshop was conducted by two of the foremost experts on runway friction testing. It was found that the AAI was using an incorrect friction testing tyre. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) had clearly stated the specification of the tyre that can be used. The AAI was using “grooved” tyres that are used only for testing on snow covered runways. On dry runway testing, ICAO specifies that only a “smooth tyre” has to be used. On March 6, 2009, the AAI gave an assurance to the DGCA that all the tyres would conform to ICAO specifications within 30 days. When the AAI continued to ignore all these pointers, the writing was on the wall that we are going to pay a heavy price. On June 22, exactly a month after the tragic crash in Mangalore, the AAI test vehicle in Chennai airport was found to be using the incorrect “grooved tyre”. These tyres give an inflated friction value. These were used in Mangalore for friction testing. Their continued use of what could prove dangerous is not an oversight but something very serious.

In an interview after the crash, the Minister of Civil Aviation mentioned that the aircraft wing hit the concrete structure holding the ILS (Instrument Landing System) antenna and broke. The ICAO does not permit any rigid structure in the take-off or approach path. Only frangible structures are permitted. Yet, the AAI has built these structures in all the airfields and this is a serious violation. In the 1980s, an Indian Airlines Boeing 737-200 lost an engine during take off at Mangalore. The aircraft could not gain height and dipped into the valley, picked up speed and climbed out safely and landed back. The crew and passengers were lucky that there was no concrete structure in their path.

Mangalore airfield, along with several others in India, is termed “critical airfield”. The dictionary meaning of critical states “Fraught with danger or risk; perilous”. Were the authorities right in taking operations to such airfields lightly? The surrounding terrain in Mangalore makes it very difficult for access to a disabled aircraft in case of a crash landing. The ICAO has clear provisions for safety features under such conditions. Was the AAI safety-conscious when they diluted those provisions? Most of the passengers who died in the crash were burnt in their seats. Their death was not due to impact trauma but the failure of timely rescue efforts. Most of the airfields in India, without easy access, are sitting ducks for such an eventuality. Can the AAI say it is not culpable?

Cover-up

On March 23, 1994, an Aeroflot Airbus 310 flight 593, from Moscow to Hong Kong, crashed, killing all 75 on board. The 15-year-old son of the captain was on the cockpit seat and had inadvertently disconnected the Autopilot and the aircraft went into a steep bank and dived. On May 17, 2009, at the controls of a passenger flight operated by a private airline in India was the untrained son of an Examiner pilot. The flight was at night. All on board could have experienced similar fate as the passengers on board Flight 593. The airline and officials in DGCA suppressed this event. In any safety conscious country, this would be a criminal offence. The airline and the officials who suppressed this have no conscience.

Four days after the fatal crash, Air India Express was involved in another near disaster. While the commander was away from the cockpit, the co-pilot almost lost control of the aircraft when the autopilot tripped. It was divine grace that saved the lives of all on board. The incident is being investigated, but knowing by the track record of investigations, we may not know the truth. We never learn from experience.

In the 1970s and 80s, the accident rates were high as the discipline levels in the cockpit were poor. The concepts of CRM (Crew Resources Management ) were introduced to educate the crew on team work and professionalism. Discipline was slowly inculcated and the accident trends started their downward movement. During the past 10 years, the discipline levels are on the decline. The safety levels are directly proportional to the discipline level. Due to political patronage and the deep rooted corruption in the system, this has become a hydra-headed monster.

We have had the crew fighting in mid-air with passengers on board. Yet, the authorities failed to take corrective action. We have had several pilots coming drunk for flights. Here again, the lack of punitive action encourages continued offence.

A question of quality

The most glaring example of airlines and the regulator misusing the rules and regulations is the induction of foreign pilots. English language has been re-written. The foreign pilots do not fly on an Indian license, but on what is called a Foreign Air Crew Temporary authorisation. This was introduced in 1999, to help airlines tide over the temporary shortage of captains. What was supposed to be temporary became permanent. Airlines brought in captains without any evaluation of standards and the pliant regulator authorised their entry without any checks and balances. The standards of pilots who came are obvious from the list of near disasters (see box).

Several countries use expatriate pilots to meet the shortage of qualified captains. But, they all go for experienced and quality captains. We need experienced pilots to man the cockpit but, if airlines continue to bring in sub-standard captains, this must be stopped in the interest of safety. The commercial needs of the airlines seems to be the primary objective! They should realise that the cost of an accident far outweighs the temporary profit numbers they aim for.

The poet Shelley was also famous for this quote: “Fear not for the future, weep not for the past”.

A string of near disasters

In December 2003, an expatriate Examiner pilot of Air Sahara landed on the wrong runway, which was closed for maintenance, at Kolkata. Fortunately, the equipment and men had just vacated the runway. In December 2005, an expatriate Examiner pilot belonging to Air Sahara landed high and fast at Mumbai. The aircraft overshot the runway and has been written off as a hull loss.

In December 2005, an expatriate Examiner pilot belonging to Air Deccan went off the side of the runway at the old Bangalore airport. The aircraft was written off as a hull loss.

In May 2007, an expatriate pilot belonging to Paramount airways overshot the runway while landing at Vizag.

In July 2007, an expatriate Instructor pilot of Air India Express went off the runway while landing at Kochi in rain. <EP

In June 2007, a Spicejet flight landed on the closed runway at Delhi. Fortunately, no one was on the closed runway at that time. <

On June 9, 2008, an expatriate captain of Spicejet landed on the wrong runway at Delhi. The runway was closed and it was fortunate that the equipment and men had just vacated the runway.

On December 1, 2008, an expatriate captain of Spicejet landed on the wrong runway at Kolkata. Here again, the men and equipment had just vacated the closed runway.

On March 2, 2009, an expatriate captain of Jetlite (former Air Sahara) landed on the wrong runway at Kolkata.

On November 3, 2009, a Go Air flight operated by an expatriate Instructor pilot aimed short of runway twice. The flight was to land beyond the middle of the runway as 600 men were working at the intersection of the runways at Mumbai. The captain ignored all the signs indicating that the first portion of the runway was closed. But for the ATC asking them to go around, all the 600 on ground and 150 on board would have perished.

In November 2009, a Kingfisher airline flight with an expatriate captain overshot the runway at Mumbai, while landing in rain. The aircraft has been written off as a hull loss.

On May 22, 2010 , the Air India Express flight with an expatriate captain crashed while landing at Mangalore, killing 158 people on board

Captain A. Ranganathan is an airline pilot with extensive flying experience, and a consultant in the field of accident prevention.