Safety on the fly

We lack the systems and infrastructure to address air accidents
ps ahluwalia Posted online: Fri May 11 2012, 03:08 hrs

As the helicopter carrying Jharkhand Chief Minister Arjun Munda crash-landed at the Birsa Munda Airport in Ranchi on May 9, worrying questions about air safety in India were thrown into sharp relief once again. The incident is not the first of its kind, yet the systems and infrastructure to deal with it are woefully inadequate.
To begin with, such accidents should be probed by an independent safety investigation authority in order to avoid any conflict of interest or external interference in determining the causes for the mishap. If we are to accurately establish causes and prevent the recurrence of such accidents, it is critical to have an agency that will be functionally independent of the aviation authorities responsible for air-worthiness, certification and air traffic control. After 65 years of Independence, we are yet to form such an authority, complete with the financial and human resources needed to conduct efficient investigations.

Moreover, search and rescue operations in India are organised in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards by the Airports Authority of India (AAI). The responsibility lies with the rescue co-ordination centre in the concerned Flight Information Region, but it is more of a paper exercise. There are no resources at their disposal, whether it is medical aid, manpower, specialised equipment, communication systems or helicopters. This needs to be addressed urgently if we are to stand scrutiny by international authorities.

Surveillance and reconnaissance facilities are practically non-existent. On April 30, 2011, Arunachal Pradesh CM Dorjee Khandu and four others were killed in a chopper crash. But the Indian Space Research Organisation or the Indian Air Force (IAF) were not able to locate the crash site. It was only discovered by yak herders on May 4, days after the tragedy. This has happened in numerous instances. Reaching the crash site quickly is essential if lives are to be saved. The IAF should be provided with state-of-the-art equipment for surveillance and reconnaissance.
In the crash that killed Khandu, the emergency locator transmitter did not function. This has happened on many occasions as the antenna snaps on impact, due to its location on the aircraft. It would be prudent to have an alternative system, such as the personal rescue beacon, for prompt search and rescue operations.

In fact, merely reaching the site where Khandu’s chopper had crashed was a herculean task. At a height of 15,000 feet, conditions are harsh for man and beast. The crash site was a trek of two days from the nearest habitat, which consisted of 8-10 shepherds. A mule can carry only 10 kilogrammes as load. However, the combined efforts of the army and those brave shepherds ensured that important equipment was recovered. Skilled flying by young IAF helicopter pilots also made sure that the engine was recovered. If it had not been recovered, the cause for the crash would never have been determined.

Investigation of accidents in the absence of a Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) or Flight Data Recorder (FDR) is often speculative. According to ICAO rules, for aircraft weighing less than 5,700 kg, FDRs are not mandatory. However, recommendations to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation include that all aircraft, irrespective of their weight, have the same recording device.
For the Pilatus PC-12 (used as an air ambulance), an innovative measure was introduced, in the absence of a CVR and FDR, to establish the cause of an accident. The radar picture from Air Traffic Control (ATC) was meticulously analysed to reconstruct the crucial last few minutes of the flight. The Doppler radar information from the India Meteorological Department can also be duplicated in a monitor at the ATC. The controller could use this information to steer aircraft away from critical weather.

There is another reason for the frequency of accidents in our country. The commercial aviation sector has expanded without first ensuring the availability of vital infrastructure. This includes pilots and technical staff to support the industry. Pilots have been inducted hastily, with no proper training. The sad story of aviation schools logging extra flying hours to make would-be pilots eligible for licences is only too well known. Just a 10th-grade degree may not be enough qualification for a candidate. It is important to be well educated, mature and, more importantly, competent to handle high-pressure emergency situations. The selection process must see to it that before licences are issued, aspiring pilots are put through psychological assessments as well as aptitude tests. Methods of training and examination must also be restructured. Emphasis on handling sophisticated technology is crucial. Most accidents are caused by human error. Excessive automation has led to basic flying skills being neglected. The consequences are disastrous when manual flying is needed.

A lack of pilots resulted in the retirement age for pilots being raised, first from 58 to 60, and now to 65. Yet older pilots will find it harder to meet the exacting standards of fitness required by their profession. An increase in the average age lowers the quality of pilots.

The writer is a retired air marshal who led probes into four air mishaps in 2011, express@expressindia.com

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