Kozhikode crash: Easy to speculate on cause, but that may not be fair

There are instances when the DGCA had acted in an arbitrary manner while dealing with pilots

Air India, crash
A total of 184 passengers and six crew members were on board Flight 1344 that took off from Dubai and crashed upon landing in Kozhikode

Preliminary investigations into the Kozhikode air crash on Friday that killed 18 passengers, including the pilot and co-pilot, and injured many suggest that the weather conditions were poor, the plane overshot the runway and it hit a rock before sliding into a gorge.

It would be tempting to lay the blame on some or the other factor, but this should be avoided, as there could be multiple reasons for an accident of this nature. It could be due to bad weather, human error, aircraft failure, regulatory oversight, or inadequate adherence to safety maintenance standards.

The Director General of Civil Aviation, or DGCA, the body that regulates the aviation sector in India, should go into all possible reasons for an accident of this nature and conduct a free and fair probe to find the truth.

The politicians should avoid issuing certificates even before the probe has begun. The minister of state for external affairs, V Muraleedharan, gave a clean chit to the airport authorities quoting civil aviation ministry within hours of the accident saying that the condition of the runway had nothing to do with the airport.

He may as well be true, but the question should have been left to the probe agencies to give an answer. Last year, DGCA had issued an eight-point show cause notice to Kozhikode authorities on the maintenance of the aerodrome. It is possible that all the concerns of the DGCA were addressed, but the checks are supposed to be conducted on a sustained basis.

The airstrip is supposed to be regularly cleared of rubber deposits as that may ‘contaminate’ the landing by reducing the braking effect due to loss of friction. An ‘aquaplaning’ should have been ensured so that excess water drains out and the wind indicator of meteorological department should be functional to aid the pilot.

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News reports suggest that the pilot overshot the touchdown point and therefore, had lost a sizeable length of the landing strip. This again needs to be investigated. Some news reports suggest that the pilot attempted a “belly landing” after emptying his fuel. This means the undercarriage did not lower. Prime facie no evidence has come up. This, besides possibilities of any technical failure, needs to be investigated by the authorities.

DGCA has often come under fire for its poor handling of pilot-related issues. A former pilot points out that the DGCA officials who certify the pilots “have not even seen an aircraft”. He may be indulging in exaggeration, but the charge that examiners may not be professionally competent to test a pilot needs to be probed.

While flying is considered safe as compared to other modes of transport, safety is paramount. This must be engraved as the guiding principle of airline managements. For instance, a pilot should ensure safety first while taking a split second call on behalf of hundreds of passengers. No other issue should be weighing on his mind.

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There are instances when the DGCA had acted in an arbitrary manner while dealing with pilots. In 2019, a pilot was punished for taking a “corrective action” by carrying out a ‘go-around’ procedure for a second attempt at landing. He was grounded. In another case, a pilot who ‘wilfully jeopardised’ the lives of people while landing a Delhi-Hong Kong flight was allowed to go scot free. While the investigators pointed out that the pilot had forgotten to lower the landing gears though he had begun the descent and had reached dangerously low levels, DGCA officials stepped in and declared it as “minor” error.

Aviation experts say that a pilot should not be grounded for trying something which he considers important for ensuring the safety of the passengers. In the case of Kozhikode, the pilot, Wing Commander Vasant Sathe, did carry out a “go-around” manoeuvre before attempting a landing for the second time, but he could have thought of taking a detour and landing at another airport.

Aviation experts say the pilots have to do a lot of explaining when they take a detour, though a diversion is made part of the flight plan even before an aircraft takes off. The pilots are given at least two options of landing in alternative air strips. In this case, if the table top airport landing seemed risky and weather conditions further adding to tough conditions, the pilot could have very well diverted. Experts say odds are so heavily loaded against the pilot that he does not easily divert the flight.

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The aircraft on ‘Vande Bharat’ mission was on a special flight and therefore, it could have been delayed or rescheduled based on weather conditions. The ATC and the Airport authorities could have advised a rescheduling after checking the weather conditions. Even if they had planned landing, it could have been before sundown. Especially, since Kozhikode is known to be a table top airport, the authorities could have exercised abundant caution. The aircraft landing systems are basic and not advanced as in other major airports.

Commercial considerations should not overshadow safety considerations. A “go-round” or “diversion” certainly results in more spending on fuel but that should not deter a pilot. A 2019 news report quoting DGCA manuals suggests that in 87 per cent cases, the pilots avoid a “go-around” even if the ground situation demanded such an action.

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The implementation may be patchy but the DGCA circular is clear on the issue. It says, “Pilots must be secure in the knowledge that a ‘missed approach’/’go around’ event does not call for any punitive action either by the Air Operator or the DGCA.” It has also asked the operators to ensure that “pilots need to be encouraged to go-around irrespective of the altitude or height above threshold when flight parameters or environmental conditions preclude a safe approach and landing.”

In India, where passenger traffic is growing fast (excluding COVID-19), regulation needs to be tightened. It can’t be patchy, and regulators, operators and employees should be held to account for any violation.