Indian airlines have bought aircraft worth more than $20 billion (Rs95,200 crore today) in the past six years to cater to the booming aviation market, but the civil aviation watchdog is yet to purchase accident investigation kits that experts say are critical for crash probes.
“We are trying to speed it up. Accidents don’t happen every day,” an official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said on condition of anonymity, referring to the purchase of the kits.
Air disaster: Rescue workers clearing the debris of the Air India plane that crashed in Mangalore on 22 May, killing 158 people. Shailendra Bhojak / PTI
An Air India Express flight from Dubai crashed at Mangalore airport on 22 May, killing 158 people in one of the country’s worst air disasters. It took DGCA investigators four days to locate the plane’s digital flight data recorder, or black box, which is crucial to find out the cause of the crash.
An accident investigation kit includes basic crash investigation tools such as binoculars, digital recorders, high resolution cameras and global positioning system (GPS) units to track aircraft position, hand gloves and shoes, among other tools.
Another DGCA official said investigating a crash without the kits was not just tardy, but dangerous as well, posing the threat of contamination.
“They (DGCA investigators) have to buy Rs20 gloves from the market or ask the operator of the crash to help with these things,” said the official, who did not want to be named as he is not authorized to speak with the media. “It’s very risky because there is blood spilled all over.”
National flag carrier Air India has appointed emergency response company Kenyon International Services Inc. to “assist with recovery, identification, repatriation of human remains and the return of their personal belongings”. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will also assist the crash investigation, besides aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co.
Although the Mangalore crash was India’s first major air disaster in a decade, smaller accidents and near misses have happened frequently in the past five years as the number of aircraft has shot up in the skies.
Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was killed, along with four others, in a helicopter crash in September. And a chopper belonging to President Pratibha Patil’s retinue was involved in a near miss with a passenger aircraft at the Mumbai airport in February 2009.
DGCA floated a tender to buy 25 accident investigation kits last year, but it was scrapped even though the government had allocated funds for it. In April, a second tender was floated, this time to purchase 15 kits. The process is still going on.
“They (DGCA) don’t even have equipment to carry back blood samples,” said a domestic airline safety official, who also did not want to be named. “Funds have been allocated. The problem is the basic attitude. Why waste so much of money; we will spend it on something else.”
“If people say that we don’t need this because we haven’t had an accident, it shows bankruptcy of thinking,” said Chennai-based air safety expert Mohan Ranganathan.
Ranganathan said investigation tools are necessary to carry out a meticulous probe. “They may miss out on some vital clues on which equipment to retrieve without a checklist of requirements. How will you record the conversations without a dictaphone and brainstorm when you go back to analyse what happened at the site?”
DGCA had floated the tender to buy the kits last year after US aviation authorities threatened to downgrade India’s safety ranking, based on the findings of a 2006 safety audit by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
“DGCA has not provided its investigators with sufficient communication means, transportation means and investigation equipment, including investigation field kits, to enable them to adequately carry out their tasks. Furthermore, protective equipment against biological hazards and other hazards at the accident site has not been provided to the investigators,” the ICAO audit pointed out.
Four years since the audit report was published, none of this has been procured.
ICAO noted that despite safety circulars issued by DGCA, the guidelines do not provide sufficient guidance to investigators on the various aspects related to accident and incident investigation.
Another safety expert said initial investigation matters in a crash. “I would expect that initially, investigators would want to walk the site, locate, plot, photograph and document the wreckage, marks on the runway, other possible witness marks, the general scene, etc.,” said Paul Hayes, safety director at London-based aviation consultancy Ascend.
“If the investigators sub-contract some of the actual work to other agencies, I would expect that they would still want to supervise this closely. When the wreckage is recovered, again I would expect that they would want to supervise this operation to ensure that any parts of possible interest are handled properly, their condition safeguarded, etc.,” he added. Hayes said the Mangalore probe would be particularly difficult to carry out, as the plane had fallen into a gorge “with steep, vegetation covered and probably slippery slopes”.