In a glaring violation of air safety norms, a small aircraft carrying BJP president Rajnath Singh took off from an unlit airstrip in Dumka in Jharkand in pitch darkness last night guided by only headlights of jeeps.
Taking note of the incident, the Union Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel, ordered a probe by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and appealed to VIPs not to pressurise pilots to operate flights. Mr. Singh was accompanied by some senior party leaders in the chartered eight-seater airplane.
The runway in Dumka airstrip, which does not have air traffic control facility, was lit up for take-off by several vehicles lined up alongside with their headlights on, according to officials and BJP leaders.
The take-off after sunset described as ‘risky’ by state Civil Aviation Secretary, P. K. Jajoria, came a few weeks after the crash of a helicopter in Andhra Pradesh claiming the lives of Chief Minister Y. S. Rajashekhar Reddy, and five others.
In New Delhi, Mr. Patel told reporters, “It is too premature to say who is responsible till the inquiry is over. But I would appeal to VIPs not to pressurise pilots.”
No violation of safety norms: BJP leaders
BJP leaders in the national capital denied that Mr. Singh’s airplane violated safety norms saying it was entirely the pilot’s decision and their party president was not in a haste to leave.
Aviation experts said the pilot should have refused to take off since Dumka airstrip is not cleared for night flying to avoid any violation of air safety norms.
Sources close to Rajnath Singh claimed that the small aircraft, which had jet engines, required a visibility of up to 800 metres, which was there during take-off.
Asked what then was the need for the vehicles to be lined up along the airstrip, they maintained that these were “not meant to aid the take-off“.
BJP district chief says jeeps' headlights helped take-off
However, BJP’s Dumka district chief Bipin Agarwal said as the pilot could not get a full view of the runway in the darkness, jeeps parked along the runway turned their headlights on to enable the aircraft to take off. According to reports, 10 jeeps put their headlights on.
Mr. Jajoria said he would look into the matter. “Though it’s a private aircraft, we will look into it,” he said when asked whether it has violated civil aviation rules.
After addressing a public meeting in Godda yesterday, Mr. Singh drove to neighbouring Dumka to board the flight which took off at 5.55 pm — an hour behind schedule.
Sources close to Mr. Singh claimed that the flight was delayed “by five minutes only” as it took off at 1745 hours instead of the “scheduled departure time of 1740 hours”. They also claimed that Kolkata ATC had given clearance to the aircraft to take off.
Mr. Agarwal said former Chief Minister, Arjun Munda, BJP’s State unit president, Raghuvar Das, and party MP, Nishikant Dubey, had accompanied Mr. Singh in the aircraft.
Official sources said the BJP chief’s aircraft was originally scheduled to leave by 1545 hours.
However, the meeting, being held at Porrayiahat in nearby Godda district, about 55 kms from Dumka, continued beyond the scheduled time, causing the delay, they said.
They said as there was inadequate light at the airstrip and jeeps were pressed into service alongside to facilitate the take-off.
No pressure by Rajnath Singh: BJP sources
But BJP sources in New Delhi maintained that Rajnath Singh had not pressurised the pilots to take off.
The party chief had “no urgency to leave” as he had no commitments, they said, adding that after the fatal crash involving YSR’s helicopter the pilots would not take any risk.
For long, the Jharkhand government’s Civil Aviation Department has had plans to upgrade the 4,000 ft runway area in Dumka and set up an air traffic control tower.
In 2005-06, the Arjun Munda government had decided to upgrade the airstrip but land acquisition for its extension could not be possible due to opposition by villagers.
During Madhu Koda’s tenure as Chief Minister the airstrip was finally renovated and surrounded by a boundary wall. A guestroom and a barrack for guards were also constructed last year.
Aviation experts claim that the quality of tar used for the runway was not up to the mark and this has led to loose binding of stone chips.