The whirring rotor blades of a helicopter decapitated a ground staff member of an air charter firm in Rudraprayag, Uttarakhand. He was approaching the chopper just after it had landed. That was in May 2007, a year in which aircraft accidents killed nine people countrywide.
A probe into the accident at Phata helipad later revealed the Prabhatam Aviation Pvt. Ltd employee had flouted the most basic of rules.
Ground crew are supposed to approach a helicopter, or any aircraft, only after the anti-collision beacon—the red flashing light below the aircraft—is switched off.
“It was unfortunate,” says Capt. P.K. Chabri, vice-president of Prabhatam Aviation, adding that the firm had supported the employee’s family with Rs10 lakh compensation. “He had been with us for three years. He was fully trained for the job... But since the accident, we have started a practice drill for the staff every week.”
Also Read first part of the series, “A disaster waiting in the wings?” and a slideshow on aviation safety
While no lives had been lost in such accidents the year before the Rudraprayag mishap, eight people were killed in 2008, and 10 died last year.
Investigations carried out by aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) show most of these accidents involved aircraft run by non-scheduled operators (NSOPs)—such as Prabhatam Aviation—or those used for pilot training.
India has seen the number of NSOPs at least double from 56 in 2006 to 122 in 2009 as economic growth accelerated.
Victim of negligence: The remains of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s crashed helicopter. Records show that Andhra Pradesh Aviation Corp., which runs the air operations of the state government, has not been audited in the past five years by DGCA. Bharath Sai/Mint
There were 1,375 registered aircraft—including small jets and helicopters operated by corporate houses and governments—in India in March 2009, of which 885 held certificates of airworthiness, which allows them to fly.
Passenger airlines, which are scheduled operators, held 397 of these, while 275 were with NSOPs. Most others were owned privately, by VIPs or flying schools.
Despite their deteriorating performance, the operations of NSOPs remain largely free from surprise safety audits that are carried out by aviation authorities to gauge the safety preparedness of any operator in the skies.
Even though they form a critical part of DGCA’s responsibilities, records show it has carried out just 36 safety audits on the 122 NSOPs as well as commercial airlines in the past five years. Two senior DGCA officials familiar with the process say virtually no checks were carried out on NSOPs in 2007 or 2008.
A former DGCA official, who used to participate in top-level safety audits, said he can’t recall surveillance checks being carried out on NSOPs even in 2006, when he retired.
He preferred not to be named because he still works as a private consultant for the regulator.
The reason, he says, is that DGCA was “confident that FDR would work good enough”. FDR, or flight data recorders, tape cockpit conversation. They are the key to probing any air mishap.
The ex-official says most NSOPs appeared on the horizon around 2005, and were thoroughly checked for operational infrastructure before being given licences. It was assumed that would take care of safety needs for one year, he adds. But “things start going down” soon after.
Sanat Kaul, a former joint secretary in the ministry of civil aviation and India’s representative at the United Nations-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) from 2002-2005, blames it on DGCA’s personnel crunch.
“India was reasonably well managed until 2000,” he says, referring to the country’s aviation authority. “The issue was with the growth, they never kept up with the safety apparatus. Which means with the growth in traffic, you have to increase the number of people to look out to safety.”
Indeed, DGCA employs just 306 people, compared with National Aviation Co. of India Ltd-run Air India’s 32,438. Its air safety team has only 82 personnel, most of them confined to accident investigation and just a handful allotted to accident prevention.
The authority depends largely on Union government funds, amounting to Rs63 crore, to run its operations, according to its 2007-08 annual report and the 2008-09 budget of the civil aviation ministry.
The safety offices of the directorate paint a picture of neglect. Its top safety officer, joint director general A.K. Chopra, functions from a ramshackle building with a leaky roof and overflowing washrooms.
Most DGCA employees’ pay packets pale in comparison with the salaries paid to airline officials with whom they interact on a daily basis. A senior domestic airline official, who asked not to be named, said he prefers talking to DGCA officials on the phone rather than visiting the office in person because of its sorry state.
A safety oversight audit report of ICAO exposed gross violations of safety norms by DGCA in October 2006.
“The Flight Inspection Directorate has only been able to carry out 10% of its planned surveillance activities to date... directorates are short-staffed and are not able to accomplish all of their assigned functions and responsibilities,” it noted.
US regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) threatened to downgrade India’s safety rating in the wake of the ICAO report, but didn’t carry it through after a September 2009 audit showed DGCA working overtime to resolve the international agency’s complaints.
In the absence of audits, DGCA can only hope operators will follow the standard operating procedure it has laid down, considered one of the toughest in the world. But many don’t, as accident investigations have revealed.
Unsafe flight:A TV grab of the helicopter carrying Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy taking off from the Begumpet Airport in Hyderabad on 2 September. Reddy was killed, along with four others, when the chopper rammed into a hillock while flying over a forested area. AFP
For instance, an aircraft that took off from Indore for Shivpuri airfield lost radio communication and skidded off the runway and sustained damage in March 2009, says a recent DGCA inquiry.
The probe found the Cessna 421 aircraft of Chetak Aviation Pvt. Ltd was being flown by a 66-year-old pilot. DGCA only permits commercial flying by a pilot until the age of 65. The Chetak Aviation aircraft was also not airworthy.
B.P.S. Yaduvanshi, chairman, Chetak Aviation, says action has been taken. “He is totally grounded. In future, he will never be onboard,” Yaduvanshi says. But he adds that the commander was allowed to fly because his licence was valid.
“Even at that time, I saw the licence validity. His licence is valid till 2010. He is a well-known person, who has flown aircraft with many hours (of flying experience). But why was he given a licence valid until 2010 when he is past 65?” he asks.
No time to audit
One of the two serving DGCA officials quoted above says regular safety audits on all NSOPs is asking for too much—there isn’t enough time to audit even all the passenger airlines.
But the retired DGCA official cited above says auditing NSOPs takes only one or two days, although it takes longer for airlines. It should, hence, be done at least once a year.
Chennai-based air safety expert Mohan Ranganathan, who has 20,000 hours of flying experience, also says poor auditing shows DGCA has not been professional enough.
The former commander adds many incidents of the last few years could have been prevented through surveillance—including the helicopter crash of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy last September.
Reddy was killed, along with four others, when his chopper rammed into a hillock while flying over a forest area.
A probe released in January blamed the crew for flying the helicopter in conditions it was not cleared for, and for wasting precious time poring over the flight manual when the craft developed a snag.
But records also show that Andhra Pradesh Aviation Corp. Ltd, or APACL, which runs the air operations of the state government, had not been audited by DGCA at least in the past five years.
The 140-page probe report cited the “casual attitude of maintenance personnel” responsible for the aircraft’s upkeep, said senior management lacked “knowledge of aviation related issues” and suggested that all state governments’ aviation setups be audited. Investigators found no snag register on the helicopter listing defects, if any, that had been found in the past.
Ranganathan says splitting DGCA into a separate safety board and an independent regulator was the only answer to the growing need to manage air safety. Currently, both airline regulation and accident investigation are conducted by DGCA, stretching its resources.
The civil aviation ministry says the Planning Commission, India’s apex planning body, is preparing the blueprint for a National Transport Safety Board (NTSB), which will inquire into all transport accidents, including air crashes. This will put India in line with the US, where such a division is already in place.
The second retired DGCA official quoted above says government and flying school aircraft are the biggest safety concerns, while corporate planes maintain their standards.
“It’s their life at stake. They (corporations) are not bothered about money. I know plenty of people who ask for the best of pilots as no one wants to takes risks,” he says. “Besides, these (pilots) are always under surveillance of their own masters. Some of the corporates have taken highly experienced people from DGCA.”
Passengers on government and VVIP aircraft, in contrast, force a drop-off in safety standards. “If you go and carry out checks, they would complain that the DGCA is disturbing them. This is a very serious issue,” the retired official adds.
A senior DGCA official, requesting anonymity, says the regulator has finally started conducting surveillance checks from this year on NSOPs.
By March, checks on all NSOPs will be completed, he promises. “There is always a need for improvement. And we are trying,” he says, agreeing that lack of checks was a grey area.
The regulator is also adding to its ranks. A team of three dozen newly hired flight inspectors from airlines has been taken on board to carry out checks in rotation throughout the year. The annual surveillance programme envisages 4,000 checks on all organizations.
Some of these checks have already started showing results, with business house bosses often dropping by DGCA to promise cooperation and improvement in their safety infrastructure as long as their licences are not revoked.
“There is some satisfaction coming out of it,” says Kaul. “Hopefully, it will soon be back to normal.”
FAA allowed India to retain its safety credentials last September after it saw DGCA take a series of remedial steps. These included a promise to appoint new flight inspectors; approving 560 technical positions and 150 non-technical positions; and hiring technical officers on short-term contracts.
But while some of these have been hired, the process has slowed. The protracted procedure for signing up government employees ensures that even already approved positions will take a while to be filled.
Read the third and final part of the series, “Drunk driving is passé. This is the age of drunk flying!” on Monday.