The tragic death of Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat reminded me of my days in the Army and in civil aviation. When the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s Tupolev-124 with Prime Minister Morarji Desai on board crashed near Jorhat, Assam, on November 4, 1977, all the five crew members died. Desai’s entourage and an under-trainee flight engineer who were not in the cockpit survived. I remember Desai’s words, as quoted by the media, after he walked out of the smouldering wreckage: “I survived. My faith in God has been reinforced.” I was deputed to take a small contingent of my unit soldiers to pay respects to Squadron Leader Mathew Cyriac, the co-pilot, whose funeral rites were held in Trivandrum where I was posted. As I laid the wreath, I saw Cyriac’s wife sobbing and their daughter playing with another child. I never forgot Desai’s words. I couldn’t help wondering whether God plays cruel games with humans, sparing some and striking others.
An unbearable tragedy
I have witnessed many accidents both in the forces and in the civil aviation sector, including in my own company. On March 3, 2002, I received a call which hit me like a thunderbolt. A helicopter belonging to Deccan Aviation crashed into a pond in the Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh. Everyone on board, including the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, G.M.C. Balayogi, was killed. The investigation report submitted six months after the accident by the Accident Investigation Committee to the Civil Aviation Ministry revealed that the pilot, Captain K.V. Menon, flew into thick fog with very poor visibility. He decided to do an emergency landing and wait for the fog to clear to resume his flight. But he mistook the 20-acre shallow fish pond to be solid ground and descended. He realised his mistake too late — when he attempted a sudden take-off, the tail rotor hit the water and the chopper spun out of control and crashed. It was an unbearable tragedy. Captain Menon was an accomplished pilot who had flown extensively in Jammu and Kashmir over high altitudes, including over the forbidding heights of Siachen Glacier, and in inclement weather with terrorists lurking below. That he should die in peace time in a regular flight in the plains along with a VIP passenger was hard to come to terms with.
The ill-fated flight with Gen. Bipin Rawat on board was similarly flown by pilots of the IAF who had vast experience in flying over varied terrains and in all kinds of conditions. A tri-service inquiry headed by an Air Marshal has been ordered by the IAF into the incident. Nothing can be ruled out until all the evidence is gathered and technical and forensic investigation is completed. The report, when ready, should be widely disseminated so that future accidents can be prevented. Unfortunately, there are already conspiracy theories and fake videos circulating on social media, which do a lot of harm.
Having said that, these accidents are cautionary tales for pilots, engineers and ground-handling staff. Most flight-related accidents in the world are related to pilot error and faulty maintenance. Disregarding standard operating procedures and throwing caution to the wind when undertaking flights in inclement weather or while under pressure causes such accidents.
It is well known now that there was thick fog on the day of the flight. There are some troubling questions which the investigation team may look into. Why was there no advance pilot helicopter before Gen. Rawat’s flight was cleared? For a VIP of his stature, a helicopter could have flown in advance and returned to advise cancellation of the flight of the General if the fog was impenetrable.
It is not uncommon for VIPs to put pressure on pilots to take them to attend important functions. Sometimes, there is also pressure from the management of the organisations on the crew to undertake flights to please the VIP, or commercial pressure in the case of the private sector. And at times, the pilots themselves are at fault as they want to live up to their reputation of being daring.
Since many accidents occur in the mountains, especially during foul weather, it is pertinent to mention that low ground fog and low clouds greatly hinder visibility. And as pilots fly visually and do not rely on instruments, in remote locations they have a tendency to cling closer to the ground to gain visibility. In these cases, there is spatial disorientation and greater danger of hitting an obstacle during landing and take-off. This may not have been the case in Gen. Rawat’s flight, but it bears emphasis nevertheless that pilots must not succumb to pressure or yield to temptations of adventurism. They must have the courage to call off a flight if, in their opinion, it is unsafe to fly. The VIP and the commands in defence and the civil management must show grace and prudence and not belittle or punish the pilot who says ‘no’. Discretion is the better part of valour.
G.R. Gopinath is a farmer, soldier and founder of Air Deccan