He’s one of dozens of pilots in the country who obtained certificates showing inflated flying hours and ground training, according to court documents and interviews with pilots, regulators and industry analysts. The son of a poor farmer, Verma was given a ₹ 28 lakh subsidy by the Indian government to learn to fly a commercial jet.
“What if I was flying and had an emergency? I wouldn’t even know how or where to land," Verma, 25, said in an interview. “We’d kill not only the passengers, but we might crash in a village and kill even more people."
The spotlight on aviation safety has swung from aircraft reliability to pilot reliability in the past few years after a series of disasters that were thought to be either deliberate acts of destruction, or the result of inadequate training. The latest, in March, killed 150 people when Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz appears to have locked his captain out of the cockpit and flown his jet into a mountain.
Last year, a Malaysia Airlines jet with 239 on board mysteriously changed course en-route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur and headed off for thousands of kilometers into the Indian Ocean. The plane still hasn’t been found and the cause of the disaster remains unknown.
Concern about the quality of India’s pilots has been building over the past decade as a proliferation of budget airlines created demand for hundreds of new pilots. In 2011, the government reviewed the licenses of all 4,000-plus airline pilots in the country, as police investigated at least 18 people suspected of using forged documents to win promotions or certification. The findings of the review were not made public.
“The fudging of log books is rampant both in airlines and in flying clubs," said Mohan Ranganathan, a former commercial pilot and aviation safety consultant based in Chennai. He said the 2011 audit found violations in most flying clubs in the country. “Hours were logged with aircraft not even in airworthy condition. One aircraft had no engines but several hundred hours were logged."
Asked about the continued use of fake certificates, India’s director general of civil aviation (DGCA), M. Sathiyavathy, said on 24 April the directorate would be conducting a new audit that would require the “recertification of all the flying schools."
Over logging has been common practice in India since the 1960s, according to a retired commander who has flown in India for over 40 years and asked not to be named because the information was confidential. With the increase in budget airlines the typical number of faked hours rose from about 20 hours to a peak of as much as 150, he said.
He said airlines can soon tell if a pilot has faked certificates because they don’t have basic skills, but the carrier can’t fire them because they have DGCA licenses. To bring them up to scratch, airlines have to do expensive corrective training, he said.
Of India’s seven major airlines, Tata SIA Airlines Ltd’s Vistara said it is aware of over logging, but tests all new pilots and provides its own training. SpiceJet Ltd said it only hires from prestigious air schools and tests and trains all new pilots. IndiGo, Air India Ltd, Jet Airways India Ltd and AirAsia India Ltd didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls about the issue. Go Airlines India Pvt. Ltd declined to comment.
The rise of budget carriers not only increased demand for pilots, it also sparked a price war that wiped out the industry’s profit. India’s carriers have lost $10 billion in the past seven years as they offered base fares as low as ₹ 1. That works out as a loss of about $22 for each passenger that stepped on board during the period, according to the Sydney-based CAPA Centre for Aviation.
Yet, for people like Verma, the award of a government grant to learn to fly is a chance to escape poverty. His father supports his family of seven by selling vegetables grown on a plot of land half the size of a football field. Most of his siblings only work part-time to supplement the income.
Verma enrolled in December 2009 at Yash Air, a flying school in the city of Indore, halfway between Mumbai and Delhi. On his first day, he said he was taken on a 35-minute “air- experience" flight to give him a feel of what it was like to be in a plane. Moments after the aircraft landed, he was handed a certificate of flying for 360 hours, he said in an interview on 1 June. He said he was told he will do the actual flying later during the course, but that he eventually flew for just 3 hours at the school.
When Verma and other trainee pilots realized they weren’t going to gain the necessary flying experience, they complained to the school and Verma sued for return of the money he paid. The Allahabad high court ordered that his fees be returned, according to a court order in February this year.
“Several discrepancies have been noticed with regard to over logging of flight details, flight authorization, maintenance of various log books and fuel consumption registers," according to a DGCA enquiry into the complaints about Yash Air, dated 6 June 2014, a copy of which was given to Bloomberg news.
On 19 May 2010, a qualified pilot from Yash Air took a trainee pilot on a “joy ride" in a Cessna-152 and hit a power line, according to the DGCA’s final report into the accident. The two-seater, single-engined trainer crashed into a dry river bed, splitting into five pieces and killing the men. They were both about 20 years old, according to the report, dated 17 December, 2010.
The owner and chief trainer at the school, Yash Raj Tongia, was appointed as the DGCA’s director of flying and training in 2011, even though his flying skills were “below standard," the June 2014 DGCA report said.
Yash Air changed its name to Centaur Aviation Academy Pvt. Ltd after the allegations were made in 2010, according to the Allahabad High Court. Yash Air issued certificates to its students without conducting ground classes and flying training, the court said in December 2014.
Attempts to get the flying school or Tongia to comment on Verma’s claims were unsuccessful. Calls to Tongia’s mobile phone number listed in the court documents were unanswered. Kshemendra Shukla, one of the lawyers who represents Yash Air, said he doesn’t have any contact number for Tongia. He didn’t respond to questions concerning Yash Air.
Telephone numbers for Yash Air and Centaur Aviation were no longer in service. The DGCA said Centaur Aviation’s approval remains suspended.
Even with the minimum 200 hours mandated by the Indian government, pilots would be unlikely to have experienced all of the weather and other conditions they’re likely to meet flying a commercial jet, said Neil Hansford, an aviation consultant, who has worked in the industry in Asia, Europe and his home country, Australia since 1984.
Airlines should hire pilots with at least 1,000 hours of flying time and preferably match the 1,500 hours mandated by Qantas Airways Ltd, he said. Pilots in countries like Australia often gain years of experience in general aviation—delivering mail to remote areas, ferrying mine workers or in the Royal Flying Doctor Service—before flying jetliners.
That will test a pilot in a variety of conditions, so “when the chips are down, they still remember the basics of stick-and-rudder flying," Hansford said. “The wrong time to be challenged is when you have 300 people behind you."
For budget airlines in Asia, that’s often not an option. Singapore’s Tiger Airways Holding Ltd said it hires holders of multi-crew or commercial pilot licenses with about 200 flying hours and then gives them further training. Seoul-based Asiana Airlines Inc. looks for at least 300 hours, said spokesman Daewoong Im. “Realistically, it’s difficult to get a non-military person with more than 300 flying hours," he said.
Carriers also use simulators and other ground training to improve pilots’ experience.
In India, many private Indian flying schools began as clubs that trained pilots without formal regulations. While schools in the US use a Hobbs Meter, which automatically logs flight times and other data for training aircraft, Some Indian schools still enter flight times by hand, making it easier to falsify data. Indian flying academies that falsify data run cars on aviation fuel to avoid a mismatch between flight times and fuel consumption, said three people who have worked directly with flying schools in the country.
India’s government has made successive efforts to stamp out false documentation and improve safety in the industry. After the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) downgraded India’s safety rating in 2014 on concerns over insufficient manpower, India hired more safety inspectors and carried out a fresh audit of its airlines. The FAA restored India to its top safety tier in April.
Since 2000, the number of fatal aviation accidents in India has declined, data from Aviation Safety Network show. The last major airline disaster was in 2010, when an Air India Express plane overshot the runway in the city of Mangalore and burst into flames, killing 158 people.
India is putting in “a lot of effort" to ensure safety of airline passengers and student pilots, civil aviation chief Sathiyavathy told reporters on 24 April. The DGCA didn’t respond to phone calls and text messages asking for comment on the issue of fake certificates.
That hasn’t stopped under-trained pilots applying for jobs with the nation’s biggest airlines. One qualified pilot, who asked not to be named because it may harm his career, said he completed fewer than 120 of the 200 hours his certificates say he has done. He said he is in the process of applying to fly for IndiGo, the nation’s biggest carrier.
Another pilot, who said his certificates showed an inflated number of hours for solo flights, applied to Air India.
Neither of the two pilots has been hired by the airlines.
As for Verma, he said he passed the entrance exam to the government-owned Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi in Uttar Pradesh. He’s looking forward to finally learning to fly this year. Bloomberg