The Begumpet airport was a poor choice. Such displays should stay clear of heavily populated and crowded areas.

The tragic crash of a Surya Kiran Mark II aircraft belonging to an aerobatic team of the Indian Navy on March 3 in Hyderabad has brought to the fore the inherent risks and dangers associated with such aerobatic displays over heavily populated and crowded civilian areas, and raised many questions.

Aerobatic flights are adrenaline-pumping displays that seek to take flying skills to an absolute level of perfection. They are also fraught with dangers: even a minor, split-second error committed by any one of the team members could send all the aviators involved to certain death.

There have been many instances. In the 1980s, the aviation world witnessed a dramatic flight display by a Russian Sukhoi test pilot: he stunned everyone with a “Cobra” manoeuvre. But a few years later, another Russian aerobatic display flight ended in a spectacular crash.

Also in the early-1980s, a major accident occurred at the HAL airport in Bangalore. Two test pilots were practising on a Kiran jet trainer for an aerobatic display before a parliamentary committee. During the practice session, they showed an amazing and spell-binding level of skill. Sadly, at the end of the short session, while carrying out multiple rolls from inverted flight at very low altitude over the runway, the aircraft crashed, killing both pilots.

On August 28, 1988, three aircraft belonging to the Italian Air Force display team were involved in a mid-air collision. Sixty-seven people on the ground were killed and more than 300 injured when the burning wreckage fell on spectators.

Aerobatic displays at air shows tend to become show-stoppers and draw the maximum audience. This, in turn, results in at least some pilots pushing their limits to the extreme and even going beyond the permitted.

On July 27, 2002, during an aerobatic display at the Lviv airfield in Ukraine, an Su-27 fighter jet entered into a low-altitude rolling manoeuvre in a downward trajectory. The aircraft crashed, exploded and cart-wheeled into the crowd, killing 85 people and injuring more than a hundred. The pilots, who ejected to safety, were sentenced to prison terms after trial by a military court. They were accused of having attempted manoeuvres for which they did not have the requisite experience. In their defence, the pilots stated that they had requested additional training flights as they were not familiar with the terrain.

Chief of the Naval Staff Nirmal Verma went on record on March 3 to say that the pilots of the Surya Kiran did not eject as they were trying to manoeuvre the aircraft away from populated areas.

But from inside an aircraft on a near-vertical dive for the “bomb burst” manoeuvre and recovery on a horizontal plane, it is next to impossible to assess the nature of the areas beneath in a split second. The pilots would have been focussing on the instruments for the next manoeuvre. There were reports of bird activity in the vicinity, and if there had been some damage to the engine due to bird ingestion, it would have been impossible for the pilots to recover.

The crucial difference between the aerobatics seen in Hyderabad and the practices followed worldwide, is the proximity to highly populated areas. Begumpet is a poorly located airport for aerobatic displays. In European countries and in the United States, the display areas are confined to a very small zone. The crowd-lines are clearly drawn and the organisers ensure that even if something went wrong, an aircraft would not fly directly into a crowd.

In the old Hyderabad airport, the only clear area is well north of the runway and it is not ideally visible from spectator enclosures. In a manoeuvre such as the “bomb burst,” the flight pattern is like an inverted plume — the aircraft come in on a vertical dive and peel off in four directions with a dramatic display of multi-coloured smoke patterns. Except for the aircraft peeling north, the other three were to fly over thickly populated and built-up areas. Did the organisers take this fact into consideration?

The area near the airport has several high-rise structures. Several buildings have cellphone towers raised atop them, and there are cables and wires strung across. There were some reports that one of the pilots ejected but got entangled in wires and died.

Two years ago, a Cessna had crashed into houses in the vicinity of the airport. Rescue efforts were hampered due to the fact that the area is crowded and has narrow lanes. Did the authorities take into account the relevant factors and take suitable measures to meet a similar eventuality this time?

With airline operations shifting to the new Shamshadabad airport, the compulsion to prevent butchers' shops and garbage dumps which generate bird activity around the Begumpet airport had come down or ceased altogether. If any bird activity had been noticed, the aerobatic display should have been cancelled. Unfortunately in India, the need to please the bosses often takes precedence over safety concerns.

If the need to hold such frequent air shows is so compulsive at a time when the aviation scene worldwide is slowly recovering from a slowdown, their location needs to be changed to airfields that are far from populated civilian areas. If the Begumpet airport is to be used for an event like India Aviation 2010, aerobatic displays should not be permitted as the surrounding areas are too crowded and any rescue efforts are bound to be hampered.

In the Ukraine accident, the pilots complained of lack of familiarity with the terrain. In the case of the Bangalore crash, the terrain at either end of the HAL airport was different.

The naval aerobatic team had been practising in Goa, which is located at near-sea level. The Begumpet airport is at an elevation of 1,750 feet and the terrain is entirely different from that of Goa. The crew had arrived in Hyderabad only a day earlier. Were they familiar with the terrain and also the effects on performance at the higher elevation while recovering from manoeuvres practised at a sea-level airport? Could that have contributed to the accident?

Do our organisers have the kind of infrastructure help that major international air show venues such as Farnborough and Singapore have? Until we have them in place, the dangers cannot be eliminated.

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

Reader's Editor clarifies:

The Indian Navy's aerobatic team is called “Sagar Pawan”. The first paragraph of this report “Aerobatic shows and safety issues” gave it as the Surya Kiran.

It's the Shamshabad airport, and not the Shamshadabad airport as given in the fourteenth paragraph.

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