New Delhi: Helped by easy recruitment rules and mushrooming growth in air traffic, the number of pilots employed with India’s airlines has more than doubled in the past five years.
The problem is that lax scrutiny may be letting in pilots who aren’t qualified or may even lack the aptitude for the job, putting both lives of passengers and expensive aircraft at risk. Such exceptions may be as few as five in 1,000, but still too many, according to experts who call for stricter oversight of the pilot licensing and hiring process.
All a pilot needs for an airline job is a Class XII certificate and 250 hours of flying, which qualifies him for a licence to be an aviator. Nearly 2,500 pilots have been hired by Indian carriers in the past five years, taking the total to 4,500. They include 600 foreigners inducted to overcome a severe shortage of pilots in a country where domestic passenger traffic has more than tripled from 13 million passengers in 2002 to 44 million in 2009. International traffic has gone up from 12 million to 30 million in the same period.
Also Read | Previous stories in the series
Fifteen pilots have died in 16 accidents involving registered civilian aircraft in the past three years, civil aviation minister Praful Patel told Parliament in April. With the 22 May Mangalore crash, the total has increased to 17.
In the aftermath of the crash that left at least 158 people dead, an investigation by Mint found cases of pilots who had been caught with fake licences, and of pilots who had been hired although their trainers had found them unfit to fly.
Take for instance New Delhi-based Garima Passi, 21, who went to a pilot training institute called Sabena Flight Academy in Arizona, US, to get her commercial flying licence in 2008.
Honing skills: (top) A file photo of an instructor (in red) familiarizing cabin crew students with the cockpit of an Airbus A-300 aircraft (Vijayanand Gupta/HT) . Domestic passenger traffic more than tripled from 13 million passengers in 2002 to 44 million in 2009, while international traffic has gone up from 12 million to 30 million in the same period. (AFP)
Passi was expelled after she damaged an aircraft while on a flight and also had a prop strike—an incident in which the propeller of the aircraft hit the runway.
Jim Fendley, a Sabena instructor who flew with her, commented in a 2008 report that Passi was “inconsistent in almost everything” and recommended that she stop training.
“She is not developing flying skills and is afraid she will damage another airplane or hurt herself,” Fendley said in an email to the institute, reviewed by Mint.
Passi joined Sabena through Gurgaon-based United Aviation Consultants Pvt. Ltd. She displayed a “fear of aircraft”, her evaluation report and log book of flying hours show.
“During the evaluation flight, I observed a young pilot who lacks the confidence of a PIC (pilot in command) and a fear of the aircraft,” her second instructor Eliza Wade said in an evaluation report seeking her termination.
At three hearings, Passi defended herself saying, “I am trying” and “I need one more chance” before she was removed from the academy. Passi came back to India and started training in Uttarakhand-based Amber Aviation (India) Pvt. Ltd from where she passed. Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) records show she was granted a commercial pilot’s licence (CPL) within five days of her application on 18 May 2009.
Soon after, she was inducted into low-cost airline SpiceJet Ltd and flies a Boeing 737-800 as a co-pilot. There has been no reported incident involving the pilot during her employment with the airline.
An emailed questionnaire sent to SpiceJet spokeswoman Priti Dey on 21 June did not elicit any response. The airline did not comment despite repeated reminders. The airline’s acting chief executive officer Kishore Gupta said on 27 July that he wasn’t aware of the issue and would revert after inquiring into the matter with a reply by 28 July. He didn’t.
Passi didn’t reply to text messages and calls made to her cellphone. Her father R.S. Passi, director (air safety) at DGCA, said she had to return from the US academy because she hadn’t been keeping good health.
“They said that she had the option to continue in another scheme, but since she was not keeping well, we called her back,” said Passi, who added that his daughter had been selected for the course by Sabena after she went through several tests, including aptitude tests.
He said the pilot wasn’t required to disclose to DGCA the prop strike, which he denied was an accident, while confirming that “something” had taken place. He also denied any conflict of interest in her being employed with SpiceJet, the operations of which he screens in his role with DGCA.
CAE Global Academy, which runs Sabena, said it cannot comment on a specific case. “We have a strict curriculum, we want our students to have the best training to become best pilots, great pilots. Our No. 1 priority is always safety,” Pascale Alpha, director of global communications at CAE, said in a phone interview.
CAE runs 10 flying schools and has been awarded the mandate to operate India’s oldest flying institute, the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi, and also run a new flying school, the Rajiv Gandhi National Flying Institute, in Gondia, Maharashtra.
“I liked the fact that they (Sabena) changed the instructor because there can be an argument sometimes that the (first) instructor is biased,” said a former DGCA official, who did not want to be named and had reviewed Passi’s evaluation report. “Despite that, after 50 hours of flying, it is very poor progress. If this has come to light now, the licence should be terminated.”
DGCA mandates that a student applying for a commercial pilot’s licence disclose if he or she was “involved in aircraft accident/incident in the preceding five years” with “details thereof, with the disciplinary action taken, if any”. It is unclear on what grounds DGCA cleared the licence.
The regulator refused to comment on the matter.
DGCA puts the onus on the airline to check the pilot’s credentials, said Shakti Lumba, who retired recently as vice-president of flight operations at low-fare carrier IndiGo, run by InterGlobe General Aviation Pvt. Ltd, and has 40 years of experience in aviation. But it is very difficult to check the credentials of new pilots, unlike experienced pilots whose previous employer can be contacted for verification.
“CPL is not like a driving licence. You have to be trained and rated for every aircraft. You have various selection processes. There are knowledge psychometric tests, basic eye and hand coordination tests that are conducted. Once these are done, you know the pilot, then you are satisfied (the pilot) has the basic attributes,” he said.
There are other instances where airlines have hired pilots with flying skills that may not have been up to the mark and gave them numerous chances to continue.
Air India Express chief of operations Jagmohan Singh, in a letter reviewed by Mint, wrote in mid-2009 that captain K.K. Vijay Kumar, 59, and captain N.K. Jain, 58, were found to be “below standard” through several training checks since 2008. They had exhausted all their chances and should be terminated immediately, he wrote.
Records show Kumar was found below standard six out of nine times during various training checks on Boeing 737-800 aircraft starting 1 October 2008, and was repeatedly being sent for “corrective training” until he “exhausted the permitted number of failures” in Air India’s operations manual.
Air India, in replies to queries from Mint, said “captain K.K.V. Kumar and captain N.K. Jain were assessed as ‘below standard’ during their initial co-pilot training and in fact they were not cleared to operate any flight”. Both have now been removed from service, said the carrier.
A DGCA official, who did not wang to be named, said forged licences and log books were an area of concern.
In the first half of this year, DGCA found pilots applying with papers showing they had experience in flying aircraft from academies abroad without even having gone to that country. In some cases, the academies didn’t even have the aircraft the pilots were supposed to be proficient in flying.
Nidhi Vashistha of Bahadurgarh, Haryana, claimed she did her ground and flying training from South Wind Aviation Center in the Philippines under Michael John P. Reeyes and Eddy Mangalindam on PA-34-200 and SKA-350 aircraft. When DGCA checked with the office of civil aviation in the Philippines, they were told the training was “fictitious, absurd and delusional as they don’t have any records nor any invitation letter issued to captain Nidhi Vashistha”.
The academy did not have the authority to train on PA-34-200 aircraft, the Philippine aviation authority said. It never had an SKA-350 aircraft.
“It is therefore concluded that captain Nidhi Vashistha has submitted false documents and made fraudulent entries in log book for the purpose of obtaining extension of aircraft rating on PA-34-200 and SKA 350 aircraft,” DGCA director (operations) Arvind Sardana wrote in a letter reviewed by Mint, suspending her licence for two years.
Reeyes didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking his comment. Vashistha couldn’t be reached for comment for lack of contact details.
Mumbai-based Vakaria Kartik Nitin sought a commercial pilot’s licence with the claim that he had trained at South Wind Aviation Center, which is certified by the Philippines aviation authority and started operating in late 2008. An enquiry later found the claim to be false, and he was barred from obtaining an Indian licence, according to a letter written by Sardana. Nitin couldn’t be contacted.
“These are the tip of the iceberg as many licences were issued when there was the pilot boom,” the DGCA official quoted above said.
As accelerating economic growth, higher incomes and falling ticket prices triggered an air travel boom in the middle of the decade, pilots became a scarce resource. This led airlines to poach from rivals and hire foreigners while young men and women chose to take up flying as a career.
The former DGCA official quoted above said the regulator gives licences to most pilots within seven days of applying. In most flying academies, there is at least one DGCA-certified official to vouch for the credentials of the student. That raises a question: How can the regulator check the veracity of the log books of pilots trained by foreign academies given that licences are cleared so quickly?
Lumba said there must be more checks to avoid an aviation nightmare. “CPL training institutes in India and abroad must be DGCA-approved and audited regularly for quality and standards,” he said. “CPL pilots should start their careers as third pilots, and only after adequate exposure and experience be permitted to act as co-pilots.”
Chennai-based air safety expert Mohan Ranganathan said a quality training institute can figure out if a student has the ability to be a pilot or not.
“Unfortunately, we are flooded with pilots who have come out of dubious flying training institutes with their connections. If a proper assessment is done of all training institutes, only a small number will clear the bar,” he said.
Even pilot associations have sought stricter checks after the crash of the Mangalore-bound Air India Express jet, which was piloted by Serbian-born Zlatko Glusica, 55, and first officer H.S. Ahluwalia, 41.
Air Line Pilots Association India president Siddharth Marwah, in a letter to DGCA and the civil aviation ministry on 4 June, asked for stringent checks on expat pilots too. This should include, he wrote, verification of the expat pilot’s background and state of health, competency, skills, history of failures, and remedial and corrective training records.
This is the last of a three-part series on aviation safety.