New Delhi: A 24-year-old Cessna-152 VT-MMM aircraft belonging to Yash Air Ltd, which says it’s India’s largest flying academy, hit a high-tension overhead power cable, caught fire and crashed in a dry riverbed in May last year shortly after taking off from an airstrip in the temple town of Ujjain. The crash resulted in the deaths of Girish Goparkar, 21, and Hitesh Karia, 20, their flying careers cut short even before they had taken off. A Facebook page called Rest In Peace Girish Koparkar and Hitesh Karia has 882 followers and a video of the crash. “No one deserves dis (this)... no one," Jason Almeida, one of the followers, says in his post.

Yash Air is one of India’s 40 flying schools. It is also one of 17 that operate in airfields without government-monitored air traffic control systems, and which are now under scrutiny for following questionable safety standards. Flying schools mean big money, charging a fee of 25 lakh per student for a commercial pilot’s licence. Earlier this year, some clubs were found to be logging flying hours without students having actually flown during the designated period, functioning without training instructors and using ancient aircraft. This forced a blanket audit of all 40 flying schools. A final report by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is awaited.

Also Read | The previous two series and stories in the current series

More than a year on, the reason for the Cessna’s crash in Ujjain remains unknown. Yash flying school’s vice-president Dilip Rawal says low flying by the student pilots was to blame and discounted the possibility of any snags having developed in the aircraft. A report on DGCA’s investigation of the crash is still to be made public, though reports on more recent accidents have been published on the regulator’s website. A DGCA official, who didn’t want to be identified, said the report is still being “prepared and re-prepared" and will be sent to the civil aviation ministry before it is posted on the website.

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The crash in the Shipra riverbed was one of seven at various flying schools in the country in the last five years that resulted in the death of half a dozen trainee pilots. Interestingly, a complaint about the school had been filed just the previous month—on 9 April 2010—to Ujjain police chief R.S. Solanki by a local lawyer, Babulal Pandeya, about a possible accident at the flying school. The school, including the airstrip, building and adjacent land, has been leased by the Madhya Pradesh government for seven years to Yash Air at about 1.5 lakh a year as per an August 2006 agreement.

A litany of complaints

Training track: (Top) Pilot aspirants at the Madhya Pradesh Flying School at Indore; (above) Yashraj Tongia, owner of the Yash Air flying school in Ujjain. Javed Shah/Mint

“I was unable to maintain the documents. They were flying 10 hours and logging 20 hours every day in the logbooks, sometimes 25 hours, 35 hours. It was a common practice. How could I continue?" Verma said, explaining why he quit.

An aircraft engineer is supposed to sign off on the airworthiness of all the aircraft that take off on his watch and can refuse in case rules are being flouted. Pandeya’s letter demanded action against the school for flying “aircraft illegally beyond the (stated) rules, in matters of training, in matters of building, in matters of inaccurate entries, doing activities beyond training, without a proper boundary wall, without proper fuel safety, no air traffic control..."

The letter, written in Hindi, goes on to add that “at any time a serious accident can happen at Yash Air’s Datana airstrip". When this prediction came true, Pandeya sought immediate action by the authorities, complaining that “logging hours of students are fudged, flights are conducted without the presence of trained staff, passengers are ferried in flying school aircraft without a non-scheduled operations permit and there is no air traffic control."

The DGCA investigation followed an audit of the school that took place in August 2010.

Even if the claims made by the engineer through his attorney may be discounted as those being made by a disgruntled former employee, DGCA’s audit report is revealing, though the two-day inspection had to be curtailed after “misbehaviour" by the institute’s staff. The audit report, reviewed by Mint, cites the case of a student—Siddhesh Mayekar—who had completed 189 hours and 15 minutes of flying by 23 August 2010 without having been taught “any exercises or emergencies" by the instructor.

“This shows that no proper syllabus is followed by the academy," the report said.

Among other findings, it said the runway strip wasn’t maintained properly, long cracks were visible on its surface and the room in which oil was stored had water leakage.

“It seems M/s Yash Air is regularly furnishing false and misleading information in their self-inspection report that (the) Ujjain (school) is licensed by DGCA and (this licence) is renewed every year," the audit found.“A thorough inspection of the flying club, its facilities, records, proficiency check of instructors, etc. is needed," it said.

Exercise in denial

The school didn’t acknowledge or respond to a request in April 2011 by Mint for a campus visit. Yash Air vice-president Rawal, who eventually responded to an email, agreed that the August 2010 audit did take place and deficiencies were found, but denied many other charges.

“Our inspection for grant of approval was done in August and again in September. Our institute approval was renewed in September last year after detailed inspection by DGCA officers. How can the approval be renewed after partial inspection?" Rawal asked, denying the August inspection was aborted because of staff misbehaviour.

“During the annual inspection, various deficiencies are pointed out by DGCA and after rectification of the same to DGCA satisfaction, the approval is renewed. The changes in markings (on the runway) were done as per DGCA suggestions. We have got the markings as per Icao (International Civil Aviation Organization) standards."

The school said since the inspection was done during heavy rains in August, there was a small leak in one of the rooms, which was repaired immediately. In June 2011, Yashraj Tongia, the school’s owner, said in an email that “his record was clean".

In a curious reversal of roles, on 11 May 2011, Tongia was quoted as saying in an interview to Mumbai-based newspaper Daily News and Analysis (DNA) that he plans to clean up the system of flying schools in India as “I will be responsible for directorate of flying training in the office of DGCA".

“This will include granting of approval to training organizations, instructors, issue of circulars and matters related to flying training," he was cited as saying.

DGCA is recruiting staff to add to its depleted workforce of just 130 people from the private sector in what it calls secondment. But DGCA chief E.K. Bharat Bhushan, who has got tough with regulation after taking over in December, said no such appointment has been made by the regulator. “UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) has selected this gentleman. He applied and he was selected, but no appointment has come," he said. This could be because the home ministry has denied security clearance for Tongia, according to a second DGCA official who did not want to be identified.

“That is what I am told (regarding denial of home ministry clearance), which has been highlighted (to the aviation ministry by DGCA)," Bhushan said. It was not clear on what grounds the security clearance had been denied.

Meanwhile, Yash Air’s website prominently features this announcement: “Capt Yashraj Tongia selected by UPSC for director flying training, DGCA."

Selected vs designated

Tongia’s office stressed that there was a difference between “designated" and “selected", and there was nothing misleading in the claim. “Our website has not mentioned designation of our former CFI (chief flying flight instructor) as director flying training, DGCA. He has been selected by UPSC for the post of director flying training," it said.

The aviation ministry is upset, but has not take any action. “We have taken note of the (DNA) interview," said a senior ministry official, who asked not to be identified. “There is nothing like designated. Either you are or you are not."

An email and text message sent to Tongia in July 2011 seeking comments on the home ministry denial remained unanswered.

Rohinton Bhappu, a retired Mumbai-based commander, did his initial training with Bharat Tongia, Yashraj Tongia’s father, at Indore’s Madhya Pradesh Flying School many years ago and knows the family well. “It’s impressive what the lad has achieved, but his school suffers from the same ills as others," he said by email. “This has become a dog-eat-dog business and all schools cut corners to earn the extra buck. It’s a tough environment to manage, what with the open drawers in the DGCA office and perhaps due to the overheads, where all such establishments cut corners by overlogging (hours), maintenance, etc."

‘Quite disturbing’

DGCA’s Bhushan declined to comment specifically on the issues concerning Yash Air. “I don’t want to say anything on that. There is a special audit being done (on 40 schools). About 24 school reports have come. I must also say that some of the reports are quite disturbing. Just about every malpractice you can imagine," he said in an interview. “Once the (final) report comes, we will take action, including closure of some schools if there is blatant disregard of norms."

Out of the four aircraft crashes India saw in 2006, one happened during pilot training and involved a 1979 Cessna-152 operated by Garg Aviation Ltd. Out of the six in 2007, two involved schools, but no one was killed. Three out of six in 2008 involved schools and resulted in two deaths.

DGCA has not taken any action against flying clubs and schools between 2004 and 2010, it said in the reply to a Right to Information filing by Mint. “DGCA has not closed any flying training organization during this period; except, the approval of Academy of Carver Aviation was suspended from 12.11.2007 to 10.1.2008 and Rajasthan State Flying School, Jaipur, was not granted approval from 2 June 2010 as their CFI was placed under suspension," deputy director general, DGCA, and its information officer Arvind Sardana said in the reply. “The matter relating to Rajasthan State Flying School and Academy of Carver is being investigated by state police of Rajasthan and Maharashtra, respectively."

Interestingly, two months after Carver was reopened by DGCA on 14 March 2008, a 29-year-old Cessna-152 aircraft belonging to it fell into a river after taking off from the Baramati airstrip. No casualties were reported. The investigation report says the “training flight was authorized by CFI for trainee pilot for one hour local solo flying", but adds “there was another trainee student pilot on board the aircraft as a passenger".

Substandard schools

DGCA’s ongoing audit shows a clear mismatch at several flying schools between the number of flying hours they claim their students have logged and the actual flying time, said the second DGCA official.

The audit typically checks the number of hours the institute claims a student has flown with the number of hours logged in the books of air traffic control to detect discrepancies.

In the case of schools such as Haryana Institute of Civil Aviation in Karnal, Haryana Institute of Civil Aviation in Pinjore, Patiala Aviation Club, Ludhiana Aviation Club, Banasthali Vidyapith Gliding and Flying Club, Toubro Aviation in Jamshedpur, Sai Flytech Aviation Pvt. Ltd in Bilaspur, Birmi Flying Academy in Patiala, Sha-Shib Flying Academy in Guna, and SVKM Flying Academy in Shirpur, such mismatches cannot be detected.

That’s because they are not monitored by government-supervised air traffic control systems. At these airfields, student pilots can practice without the fear of scheduled flights coming in their way, but this also poses critical concerns related to safety and monitoring.

An analyst says the root causes of the malaise in India’s flying schools are high costs and absence of supervision.

“The cost of flying training in India is high compared to US or Australia, New Zealand, etc.," said Ernest S. Arvai, president of the US-based consulting firm Arvai Inc. “Combine this with an examination system that is transparent only to those who control it and you understand why we cannot create decent training infrastructure. There is no decent training programme that will teach the flying school instructors the skills and knowledge needed for the job. Those flying school instructors who are worth anything find jobs in airlines." “Combine this with DGCA inspectors on the take, fly-by-night owners (of schools) and lack of ground-school instructors," added Arvai, and “you end up with lousy flying schools."

This is the third of a four-part series on airline safety that looks at issues related to hiring and training that compromise safety. This is Mint’s third series on air safety. In the first series, we explained how India’s aviation boom had been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the risk of mishaps. In the second, we looked at operational, infrastructural, and regulatory issues that compromised air safety.

Next: As they embark on ambitious fleet expansion plans to meet an anticipated boom in air traffic, India’s airlines face the twin challenges of training and retaining operational staff, including cabin crew.