Sunday, May 23, 2010

Safety lessons yet to be learnt
A. Ranganathan
This accident is a result of complacency in the system
The Air India Express (AIE) crash in Mangalore was a tragedy waiting to happen. Safety standards in Indian aviation have been on the wane for the last six years. Efforts are on to correct the drift, but the systemic rot is so deep and corruption levels are so high, we are not likely to see any improvement in safety unless drastic changes are made. In December 2009, a Kingfisher Airlines aircraft overshot the runway at the Mumbai airport while landing in rain. The captain was an expatriate with a lot of experience. The captain of this latest ill-fated flight was also an experienced expatriate. Indian aviation needs experienced expatriate pilots to make up the shortfall of captains. Unfortunately, scrutiny of quality is often lacking. The regulatory oversight of safety standards is poor, and training standards are deteriorating.
Reports indicate that the weather conditions were fine and the runway was dry. However, the touchdown was reported to have happened too late. The 8,000-feet runway was more than sufficient for a Boeing 737-800. If the correct landing and stopping techniques were used, it should have stopped by the end of the runway. Instead, the aircraft went through the perimeter wall at high speed. The Flight Data Recorder will play a crucial role in reaching the correct conclusion. The aircraft was using the Instrument Landing System (ILS). A normal touchdown takes place between 1,400 feet to 1,800 feet from the start of the runway. The AIE aircraft is reported to have touched down close to 3,000 feet down the runway.
One question that the Director-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) needs to address is the standard of the runway. Was the surface clear of rubber deposits that affect the friction quality? Was the correct runway friction testing equipment used?
This accident is a result of complacency in the system. The mushrooming of airlines in India without the minimum numbers of qualified manpower is bound to expose deficiencies in safety and training standards. The financial crunch that almost all airlines are facing has led to short-cuts in maintenance and safety standards.
The Mangalore accident is an example of an approach-and-landing accident, with a late touchdown at a higher than normal speed. If the pilot had realised that he was too high, why did he not opt for a go-around? This compulsion to continue with the approach points to a certain level of fatigue-induced decision. The crew had operated for the better part of the night, and the accident happened early in the morning. In July 2007, another AIE aircraft went off the runway at the Cochin International Airport. Did the airline learn the lessons from that accident? Did it identify the causes and correct them in terms of training? An expatriate captain was in command of that aircraft as well. The DGCA has to scrutinise the safety and training standards of the airline. Does it have the right personnel manning crucial posts?
Did the safety audit of the airline throw up any deficiencies, and were they addressed? India needs an independent air safety board and an independent regulator. The claim that we are very safe and nothing less than 100 per cent is acceptable — an oft-repeated statement by the Minister of Civil Aviation — has been blown to bits. Circumventing safety standards to accommodate the commercial interests of operators has cost the lives of more than 150 people. We need transparency in the system, and the system has to weed out the dead-wood.
The directives in a recent DGCA circular on Approach and Landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) have to be pushed through on a war-footing. The number of close shaves that have been witnessed in the last few years highlights the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the system.
Another question that needs to be addressed concerns the rescue effort. Did the crash tenders reach the site fast enough? How many lives were lost in the post-crash fire? We talk of world-class standards. But we have to accept the fact that unless we do some soul-searching and take bold corrective steps, more such accidents are bound to happen.
The monsoon is just a few days away and the weather conditions are going to be severe. Are we going to be proactive and prevent any more accidents, or are we going to sit back — firm in the belief that we have a 100 per cent safe system in the aviation sector?
( Captain A. Ranganathan is an airline instructor pilot with extensive flying experience, and a consultant in the field of accident prevention.)


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