“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result”

Mahatma Gandhi

May 22, 2011 will be the anniversary of the tragedy that overtook AIE 812 and 158 souls at Mangalore. While steps are being taken to improve the safety culture, recent events have crashed aviation safety into the minds of people. Fake pilots and unsafe operations have created a wave of uncertainty in the minds of air passengers. Has Indian aviation really evolved into a safe system?

Hesiod's Works and Days was modified when the captain with a fake license landed on the nose at Goa. Like Pandora, “her only hope was left within her unbreakable nose, she remained under the lip of the jar, and could not fly away”. The story of the fake licenses broke out when the Director General of Civil Aviation decided that it was time to put an end to passengers flying after consulting their horoscopes. The skeletons that came tumbling out have exposed how rotten the system had become during Indian aviation's boom time.

In a hurry

Who created this monster-class? Corrupt DGCA officials with the blessings of airlines who were trying to run before they could walk. Eastern Airlines' flight 401crash into Everglades in Florida in 1972 and the famous ‘Ghosts of 401' tale emerged. Crew fatigue and poor CRM (Crew Resources Management) were found to have been the contributory causes. The story goes that the ghosts looked after the safe flights in the Lockheed L-1011s which flew with salvaged parts from the fatal aircraft.

The AIE 812 investigation report is long due but the same two causes are likely to be highlighted. Maybe, the ghosts of 812 are slowly cleaning out the system in India. The days of the touts and corrupt officials are numbered and those with fake licenses are likely to disappear. The numbers detected make a very small percentage and they do not make the sky unsafe. Modern aircrafts are very safe and one has to believe that the other pilot is holding a genuine license and is professionally qualified. The current and the most recent heads of DGCA cannot sweep several years of rot in a few days. But, sweep, they definitely will. They know the result of their actions will produce results.

Destination Goa is an aviation cash cow. Hence, the airlines' compulsion to operate flights even when safety is compromised. During the last week of October 2010, a fuel truck turned turtle and spilled the entire contents on the runway. The middle portion required a complete repair and was unusable for flights. The Naval authorities offered a shortened portion of the runway, similar to what was offered by Mumbai airport during their maintenance work. While Mumbai offered temporary visual aids to assist in landing, the Goa runway was bereft of the mandatory visual aid called the PAPI ( Precision Approach Path Indicator).

Lack of visual aids

Commercial aviation suffered from a high percentage of what was called CFITs (Controlled Flight Into Terrain). A large number of Approach and Landing Accidents (ALAs) took place on the final approach path to the runway and within the last three miles from the beginning of the runway. More than 20 per cent of them were due to disorientation and visual illusions. The lay of the land surrounding the runway, like sloping terrain, hills etc, can exaggerate these illusions. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) made visual aids like PAPI mandatory for all jet aircraft operations and where certain conditions may prove hazardous, these were made mandatory even for smaller turbo-prop aircrafts. PAPIs are precision visual aids and give very precise guidance for landing in poor visibility and also in rain conditions where the water film on the windshield creates illusions, especially at night.

PAPIs are nothing but a set of four lights set at a particular angle to guide the aircraft down on pre-determined glide path. When you are on the PAPI, you will see two red lights and two white lights. When you see four REDs, you know you are very low and when you see four WHITES, you are very high and the touch down will be very late. That is what happened to the Kingfisher ATR flight which overran the shortened Mumbai runway while landing in November 2009.

Airlines in India should move over from following Brooks & Dunn's Lyrics :

I know you've got your own version of the truth. There's only three things left now I can do. Deny, deny, deny…

When the DGCA cracked the whip on airlines that operated flights in and out of Goa from April 4, 2011, in clear violation of safety norms, they have gone into a denial mode. The statements issued in the media are far from the truth. All the airlines grossly violated safety during the operations in the last week of October. It was shown to them in graphic detail, during the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council meeting in November last. Yet, they discounted safety for milking the cash cow, this April.

The ICAO Annex 14, Section clearly mandates the PAPI when turbojet aircrafts operate to an airfield. PAPI is also a mandatory requirement for the smaller aircrafts like the ATRs under certain conditions.

Annex 14 : (b-2) misleading information such as is produced by deceptive surrounding terrain and runway slopes;

(d)  Physical condition at either end present a serious hazard in the event of an aircraft undershooting or overrunning the runway.

The image of the Mumbai runway with work going on, shows the dangers that can occur. The points mentioned in the Annex 14 get highlighted. The focus of the pilot will definitely be distracted by the moving machinery and men on the runway. PAPI will ensure that the pilot is aware of the correct path for a safe landing and is not distracted by the “deceptive misleading information”.

The Indian regulations makes the PAPI a mandatory requirement for jet aircraft operations. Yet, airlines have been violating this mandatory safety requirement. It is wrong to call the operations into Goa as a “Blind landing”. They are unsafe landings without the mandatory visual aid. The contention of some airlines that PAPI is required only for landing and is not required for take-off is a clear indication that they do not impose commitment to safety.

Any take-off can have an emergency which requires an aircraft to land back immediately. An aircraft in that non-normal condition, attempting a landing in conditions mentioned in the ICAO Annex 14, makes it a dangerous proposition. The available portions of the runway do not display the normal markings. Without the PAPI and without the normal runway markings, it becomes a game of Russian roulette. The unlucky one gets the bullet. Do we need a repeat of 812?