Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Highway no Runway

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Despite the Directorate General of Civil Aviation laying down rules for the civil aviation sector, flying in India has its comic but risky moments. Why has increased automation not led to greater safety or probity? 

By Shobha John

“To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is, you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived.”
—Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Flying has always been associated with speed, adventure, dare-devilry and glamour. With the opening up of the Indian skies way back in 2003, more and more airlines fuelled the Great Indian Middle Class dream of flying. According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the number of passengers flown by Indian airlines witnessed a quantum jump of 20.34 percent from January-December 2015 as against the same period in the previous year and stood at 81.09 million passengers. And by this year-end, it is expected to go up to more than 100 million passengers. But what people didn’t bargain for or know is that despite automation, flying has increasingly become incident-prone. There have been ludicrous instances of pilots jeopardizing air safety either because of ignorance or sheer incompetence. It is a miracle that there haven’t been more accidents and fatalities.

The latest safety lapse of an airline took place on February 27 in Jaipur, where an IndiGo plane was about to land on a road running parallel to the runway when it was just 900 feet off the ground. As per reports, a warning blared in the cockpit making the pilots pull up the plane and carry a go-around before coming in to land again. The DGCA ordered an inquiry into this incident and the pilots were taken off flight duties. While the airline said that at no point was safety “compromised”, the fact remains that there was laxity on the part of the crew.

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While the courage and chutzpah of pilots has often been written about, be it Steve Fossett or Charles Lindbergh, Indian aviation is full of rules being flouted and comic situations. One would have laughed at them if they weren’t so scary. Either flights are landing in the wrong place, being aborted or tyres are bursting over falling apples. Yes, you read right.

IN THE NICK OF TIME Pilots go through immense stress but there can be no room for laxity
 Pilots go through immense stress but there can be no room for laxity

Way back in February 2011, the pilot of an Air India flight mistook the sound of apples falling in the cockpit for engine trouble. The flight was taking off from Varanasi for Delhi with over 100 passengers when the pilot braked suddenly at 240 kmph causing all the tyres to burst. The passengers were offloaded and the flight cancelled. A formal inquiry was instituted by the airline and DGCA. What had happened was that the commander of the flight had bought apples from Varanasi and placed them inside the cockpit. As the aircraft started taxiing, the apples tumbled out in merry confusion with a dull sound. Instead of checking the in-flight instruments, the pilot felt that the engine had shut down and decided to halt the flight. Safety was compromised as no loose objects are allowed into the cockpit.

Reacting to this incident on PPrune (Professional Pilots Rumour Network), many pilots had caustic comments to make. One of them said: “Wondering why Capt turned Mrs. Kaur forgot that the prices of apple are much cheaper in Delhi than Varanasi.” Another said: “That’s what you get when you scrape the bottom of the barrel,” while a third wittily remarked: “An apple a day keeps the takeoffs away.”


There have also been instances of pilots straying into Pakistani airspace, causing an embarrassment to both countries. In November 2005, an AI Dreamliner 787 was about to touch down at the wrong Melbourne Airport, Essendon, rather than the nearby Melbourne International, when it was warned off by Air Services Australia. Others have been known to land planes on the nose landing gear.

LIFE OF ADVENTURE Aviator and businessman Steve Fossett’s daredevilry has inspired many youngsters to become pilots
LIFE OF ADVENTURE Aviator and businessman Steve Fossett’s daredevilry has inspired many youngsters to become pilots

A senior pilot told India Legal: “While such instances have been known to happen, there are many extenuating factors such as bad weather and radars not working. These can make a pilot mistake a broad road for a runway or land on the wrong runway. In places where there are no radars or where they are used by the Air Force such as Jaipur, Agartala and Pune, these mistakes can happen. Though procedures, systems and civil aviation requirements are there for every eventuality, they fail because the pilot is lax or over-confident.”

But it is surprising that such incidents happen in such a highly technical field and where automation has kept human intervention to the minimum, so much so that pilots can easily take a cat nap while cruising. An experienced commander with a private airline said: “It is true that automation has masked the skills of a pilot. It is only during emergencies that the manual skills of a pilot come to the fore and in today’s time, most young pilots would be lacking them. While pilots have to go through regular simulator sessions to keep their skills current, simulators too are often over-booked by various airlines and one has to do many exercises on them. A manual approach is just one of them.”

In November 2014, a SpiceJet flight with 140 passengers onboard hit a buffalo on the runway in Surat. The buffalo was killed, while the Boeing 737 was damaged. Here, too, there was a safety lapse as there was a breach in the perimetre fencing allowing the buffalo access inside.


While these instances have not been major accidents, they well could have been. The Mangalore crash of an Air India Express plane from Dubai on May 22, 2010, killed 158 people and was caused by the sleep-deprived pilot overshooting the hilltop runway and plunging into a ravine. Investigators who listened to the cockpit voice recorder heard “heavy nasal snoring and breathing” from the captain. The plane burst into flames after the crash.

HIGHLY TECHNICAL Simulators such as these help pilots to keep their skills up-to-date
HIGHLY TECHNICAL Simulators such as these help pilots to keep their skills up-to-date

Sleep deprivation is another major cause of accidents worldwide leading to funny but dangerous situations. In June 2008, an Air India plane travelled 200 miles beyond Mumbai, its destination, after both pilots fell asleep. They were woken up by a buzzer sounded by the air traffic control (ATC). While the DGCA has set Flight Duty Time Limitations (FDTL) which govern the rest period of a pilot, senior commanders say that airline managements often get such draft policies modified so that pilots fly these expensive jets to the hilt.

One of them said: “We are being worked to the bone and to the limit of our FDTL. We often don’t know when cumulative fatigue sets in. Despite rest periods, we have erratic schedules and can’t go to sleep at the drop of a hat. We are often like zombies and while flying the last sector of the day (we usually have four landings), we are completely zonked out and tired. It is all fine to have a rule book, but it is difficult to implement it in actuality.”

Flight safety is also jeopardized when there is gross indiscipline by pilots. It used to be commonplace for some of them to get certain passengers into the cockpit. There have even been cases of a Jet commander allowing a trainee pilot to land a packed flight in Mumbai, violating rules. The commander was suspended for three months. There has also been a reported case of an AI Express pilot with about 90 passengers taking off from Singapore’s Changi airport without waiting for ATC clearance. The alarmed ATC ordered the plane to stop and while it was seconds away from lifting off the runway, the pilot aborted the take-off, gravely risking the lives of passengers.

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And in what has come as a further blow to India’s air safety is the steady quitting of flight operations inspectors (FOIs) from the DGCA. These are senior pilots who are responsible for inspecting various airlines and seeing that they adhere to safety procedures and manuals. DGCA was supposed to hire 72 FOIs as mandated under safety requirements. But early this May, three FOIs quit. Two more had quit earlier.

CHEEK BY JOWL In Mumbai, slums are very close to the airport
CHEEK BY JOWL In Mumbai, slums are very close to the airport

While safety has become an issue, the decreasing number of FOIs would greatly risk India’s safety ranking with the US Federal Aviation Administration which downgraded it in 2014.  While India was upgraded to Category I in April 2015, this could again be hit if more FOIs quit. Part of the reason for their quitting is the sheer bureaucracy and politics that plague the DGCA. Pilots also prefer their high-profile flying jobs to desk work as they need flying hours to keep their licenses current.

Ironically, the DGCA itself has been blamed for the present state of affairs. One senior commander said: “We are professionals and know our job. But when there is over-regulation by people with half-baked knowledge, it leads to fear psychosis and affects safety.” Others said that the FOIs themselves, pumped up with importance, throw their weight around in the cockpit during inspections, leading to pilots getting nervous and de-motivated.

ICapture 5t is obvious that in India, one is flying on a wing and a prayer.

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