Another crash, another high-profile passenger

The Iran helicopter crash spotlights the important role of allowing the crew to operate unhindered and ensure flight safety

Updated - May 21, 2024 01:55 pm IST

Published - May 21, 2024 12:50 am IST

‘There have been a number of fatal crashes involving very very important persons’

‘There have been a number of fatal crashes involving very very important persons’ | Photo Credit: AFP

The fatal crash, on May 19, 2024, of a Bell 212 helicopter flying the President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, and Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, is one more accident involving high-profile passengers, in mountainous terrain and in very poor visibility. One hopes people learn from these.

Given the increased tensions in West Asia and the gung-ho attitude of Israel, with open American support, suspicion will be raised about the Israeli hand. Tel Aviv has denied this and distanced itself from the crash, but neither the United States nor Israel have any credibility left for the world to accept their innocence without serious cross-checks.

Was the Iranian President’s plan known earlier? Was the flight arranged for some urgent meeting? And was the President informed about the dangerous weather conditions?

Pressure on crew

There have been a number of fatal crashes involving very very important persons (VVIPs). On September 2, 2009, a Bell helicopter crash claimed the life of the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. The copter crashed in the hills near Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, in poor visibility conditions, killing all on board. Mr. Reddy had been proceeding to a political meeting. As is the norm in accident investigation reports in India, the truth was hidden and the pilots blamed.

On December 8, 2021, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, and his entourage died in an Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter crash near Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. Here again, it was hilly terrain and in fog. Gen. Rawat had the option of travelling by road but had insisted on flying. Did the crew point out the danger due to foggy weather? We will never get to know as accidents involving the armed forces are hushed up.

Also read | What happens in Iran when a President dies in office?

Why do pilots let themselves be arm-twisted into flying in weather conditions that are dangerous? They are the ones who are trained to fly in all weather conditions. The passengers have no knowledge of weather conditions, even if one were to brief them. They have an agenda to fulfil. Very few politicians will take inputs from pilots.

It is not just the crew of helicopters with VVIPs who cave into pressure. On April 10, 2010, the aircraft carrying the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, and his wife, Maria, crashed in fog killing 96 people. They were flying to a programme to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre near Smolensk in Russia. The investigative agencies from Poland and Russia concluded that the pilots had made the approach in unsafe conditions. The pilots had made the approach in thick fog and the aircraft descended below the normal approach path, hit trees, rolled over and crashed in wooded area short of the runway.

If one were to go back to crashes in India, highlighted above, the similarity is visible, except that the Polish craft was an aircraft.

Weather and judgement

‘Navigational accuracy takes a hit if one uses a different system where the datum shifts’

‘Navigational accuracy takes a hit if one uses a different system where the datum shifts’

In fog and heavy rain, the visual illusions are plenty and depth perception induced by rainwater flowing down the aircraft/helicopter windscreen makes a huge impact. Several accidents have been caused due to misjudgements induced by optical illusions. Navigation in poor visibility has become easier with the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) with an accuracy as close as a metre. The accuracy takes a hit if one uses a different system where the datum shifts. Military aircraft, to avoid enemy interception or identification, tweak the system. Worldwide, it is the WGS 84 which is the base datum. The Indian Air Force uses a system called EVER-MD. Datum shift can result in an error of between 10 metres and 3,000m. The Balakot fiasco, which is denied vigorously by the Indian Air Force but confirmed to be a miss by world organisations with very accurate sightings, was caused by the position input based on one datum and the missiles using the co-ordinates based on the WGS 84.

Attitude to safety, a contrast

In the U.S., the most dangerous airfield in foggy conditions is Aspen in Colorado. Pilots require special training. On March 29, 2001, a Gulfstream Avjet charter flight crashed while on the steep approach in poor visibility conditions. The investigation showed that the crew were under pressure by the owner to fly even though a Federal Aviation Administration official had advised against the flight. Because of the findings and transparent report, such accidents do not recur.

We have had several accidents, both fatal as well as hull losses without fatalities. Many of them have had pilots making similar errors, and blatant violation of rules by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the Airports Authority of India and airlines. Yet, we turn a blind eye to aviation safety. It is a pity we have a judiciary whose understanding of aviation safety is so poor.

Finally, there are questions that arise out of the Iran crash.

The helicopter was U.S. made. Due to sanctions, were any vital components of the navigation equipment or parts denied to Iran? Israel may deny its involvement, but can it be trusted? Will the U.S. agencies confirm that neither Israel or U.S. agencies are not involved? Will those in power, worldwide, leave the decision on flight safety to the pilots who operate the flight? Decisions about a flight by the pilot should never be overruled by a person on board, irrespective of his or her rank. It takes just a few seconds of delayed action induced by stress and fatigue to court disaster. It is sad that several top officials, including the President of a country, have died in the crash. The collateral damage is the loss of lives of innocent fellow passengers and the crew. One hopes that better sense prevails on leaders.

Captain A. (Mohan) Ranganathan is a former airline instructor pilot and aviation safety adviser. He is also a former member of the Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC), India

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