New Delhi: A lack of weather-warning systems and inadequate communication between pilots and people on the ground may be responsible for a disproportionately high number of such accidents in India involving private planes, said a report.
While the 2010 crash in Mangalore that killed at least 158 may have been one of India’s worst recent accidents, the study said that of the 121 mishaps in the country between 1990 and 2008—the period analysed—nearly a third involved planes in the ‘private and business’ category. Conventional flights, or ‘scheduled operations’, comprised 15% of such incidents, according to the report on the relationship of weather on aircraft accidents in India.
Private aircraft accounted for 56% of the air accidents that were a result of bad weather. Flights that are used as ferries and charters—or so-called unscheduled flights--were involved in a fifth of aircraft accidents and yet made up barely 8% of mishaps due to inclement weather.
Accidents involving such unscheduled flights killed former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in 2009 and Arunachal chief minister Dorjee Khandu in 2011.
Strong winds, turbulence, low visibility, cumulonimbus clouds (dense, towering clouds associated with storms) and thunderstorms were mainly responsible for weather anomalies which caused nearly 21% of aircraft accidents in India, the report said.
“What’s surprising is that even though the United States had nearly 19,000 such airplane accidents during a comparable period, more than 100 times ours, bad weather made up the same proportion, or 22% of their accidents,” said Rajendra Kumar Jenamani, lead author of the report that is to appear in Monday’s edition of the journal Current Science.
Jenamani, a senior scientist with the India Meteorological Department, added that private airplanes, being smaller and having less sophisticated instruments, were more vulnerable. “And yet many of these accidents were quite avoidable,” he said.
That’s because too few weather stations across India are attuned to monitoring conditions relevant to aviation with the result that many pilots weren’t aware of the risks.
“We have several small flights going to an industrial place, like say Rourkela (Orissa), for business trips but there’s no aviation weather station there that’s monitoring the local weather parameters. Thus a pilot travelling from Delhi may not know what he’s getting into over there,” said Jenamani. There weren’t more than 50 weather stations that can track aviation-relevant conditions across the country, he added.
More importantly, US aviation authorities maintain long-term records on whether pilots were briefed on weather before take-off. These show that such briefings only occurred in 45% of flights that were involved in accidents.
“By comparison, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation doesn’t mention such information in the period we analysed,” said Jenamani. “But I’m told that they’ve begun doing so.”
Aviation safety in this regard is constrained by technology and a casual attitude regarding weather warnings, said Ajit Tyagi, a former IMD head and an expert on aviation meteorology.
“In far-flung places, there’s little scope of communicating weather information rapidly enough,” he said. “That has to be improved and sometimes pilots too aren’t serious of how rapidly a weather system can change.”
Aviation safety consultant Mohan Ranganathan wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings. “General aviation accident rates are very high and this is one segment that is completely disorganised,” said Ranganathan, a member of the government-appointed Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC). “The general aviation pilots do not have experience in operating flights during adverse weather conditions and they also do not get proper briefing for flying in bad weather conditions.”
Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.