Safety at risk

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

in New Delhi

QUESTIONS about air safety regulations in India, particularly helicopter safety regulations, and their implementation have once again come to the fore following the helicopter crash that killed Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and four others on September 2. The issue has been debated by aviation and security experts and among segments of the government over the past decade, especially when such accidents claimed the lives of political leaders. Significantly, at least seven national and regional-level politicians died in accidents involving helicopters and small aircraft in the past decade.

The questions that have emerged after Rajasekhara Reddys death relate to the efficacy and practicability of the safety directives, the manner in which they are being implemented and how they can be streamlined and improved. The point that the regulations need considerable altering to address awareness and other issues also has come up as part of the debate.

Helicopter safety regulations were not an important component of air safety regulations for nearly four and a half decades since Independence. The first concrete initiative came in 1991 when a committee under D.C. Kaushik prepared a report on training, licensing and proficiency monitoring of helicopter pilots in India. At that time, India had only five helicopter companies and the scale of helicopter operations was minimal. Consequently, there was no codification of the report and its recommendations in the form of clear directives.

It took another decade and a half a period when helicopter operations burgeoned to 54 operators running approximately 140 choppers for the government and the authorities in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to take a serious look at helicopter-safety issues. In October 2004 Kaushik was asked to head another committee to study the dynamics of the constantly expanding helicopter operations. By that time at least six senior politicians had died in crashes involving helicopters and small aircraft.

In 1997, the then Minister of State for Defence and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader, N.V.N. Somu, died in a helicopter crash near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. While that was the first chopper crash involving a major politician at the turn of the century, air crashes involving senior politicians became more frequent. Madhavrao Scindia of the Congress died in September 2001 when the light aircraft he was travelling in crashed in Uttar Pradesh. This was followed by chopper crashes that led to the death of G.M.C. Balayogi (2002), the then Lok Sabha Speaker of the Telugu Desam Party, and Cyprian Sangma, Meghalaya Rural Development Minister, and two legislators, Hilton N. Marak and Ardhendu Choudhury (2004). Ten persons were killed in the last mentioned accident.

On August 11, 2003, the country witnessed its worst-ever helicopter crash, off the Mumbai coast when 27 personnel of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) were killed.

The Kaushik Committee submitted its report on March 10, 2005. The report specifically referred to seven accidents that took place between September 2001 and March 2005 and pointed out that in most of the cases, the pilots are blamed for the accident by the Board of Investigation. It also stated that this was a conclusion easily drawn from the available evidence. The report pointed out that no accountability on the part of operator was assigned, not even indirectly.

The report further stated:

The operating conditions and other external factors were also not considered that resulted in these accidents. Suspecting the capability of the pilot and blaming him for the accident may not be incorrect but the operator cannot evade his responsibility for not ensuring proper conduct of recurrent training, maintenance of proficiency and competency of the pilot for the task. It is possible that commercial interest may have forced an operator to overlook or circumvent rules, thereby directly affecting the flight safety, which could contribute as a major factor towards an accident, but may not be detectable during an investigation. It is the view of the committee that operators need to follow the laid down rules judiciously and be conscientious of their responsibilities and accountability.

In its recommendations, the report emphasised the need for recurrent training and for increasing the number of helicopter flight inspectors. It stated that a safety audit of helicopter operators should be conducted at least once in two years to ensure adherence to rules, regulations and practices. It called for the setting up of training establishments to conduct ground training and simulator training.

On the basis of this report, directives were issued on July 22, 2005. By then one more helicopter had crashed, at Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh on March 31, 2005, killing two senior politicians, O.P. Jindal, who was also an industrialist, and Surinder Singh, both Ministers in the Congress government in Haryana.

The DGCA directives that were issued in the wake of this accident contained a regulatory framework for helicopter operations. The seven sets of directives addressed issues relating to the training of pilots and to the syllabus for training, with special focus on interpreting weather forecasts and hill flying. They stipulated proficiency checks twice a year for pilots, two annual route checks on designated routes with an examiner on board for those flying helicopters weighing over 5,700 kg, annual ground refresher training in a DGCA-approved institute, and annual emergency and survival training. The directives also contained special instructions for off-shore operations, such as those carried out by the ONGC.

Several aviation experts as well as private helicopter operators raised doubts about the practicability of the directives. One strongly expressed view was that the Kaushik Committee report and the directives based on it were essentially on the operations of a public sector helicopter operator such as Pawan Hans, which had the operational leeway to depute pilots for two proficiency checks in a year. It was also contended that the thrust of the directives was on unrealistic over-regulation.

Several aviation experts pointed out that despite the DGCA directives, the number of flight inspectors had not increased. The DGCA had only one helicopter flight inspector to check, advise, or investigate accidents, whereas the total number of helicopters available for commercial and non-commercial operations was around 250. The directives continue to be debated and in the meantime the number of helicopter accidents has only increased.

The question of how far helicopter operators both in the public sector and in the private sector have complied with the DGCA directives during this period has also come up. Asked whether there were consistent compliance inspections or checks on helicopter operators during the past four years, Nazim Zaidi, Director General of Civil Aviation, told Frontline that helicopter operators were covered by the annual surveillance programme that was applicable to all aircraft operations. All approved operators are covered under this programme. Our inspectors visit various operators and inspect aircraft and other systems to evaluate whether the necessary standards and proficiencies are maintained. If the operators are found wanting they are liable to corrective and punitive action depending on the gravity of the lapse, he said.

An evaluation report on helicopter operators for the past four years, listing compliance levels, violations and corrective and punitive actions was not readily available with the Director. He promised that the DGCA would send it across in due course.

However, the fact remains that helicopter accidents have continued unabated during the past four years. According to a study conducted by the Rotary Wing Society of India (RWSI), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation dedicated to the growth of the civil and military helicopter industry, 2007-08 recorded the highest rate of accidents per 100,000 hours of flying, 12.9. The corresponding figure for 2006-07 was four, and for 1999-2005 it was 11. However, in 2008-09 the rate dropped to 2.5.

According to the RWSI study, 54 accidents happened between June 1990 and August 2009 and 12 of them had fatalities. Seven of the accidents were on account of loss of visual reference (LVR) in flight, the technical term that signifies poor visibility and bad weather. Loss of control caused 14 accidents but none of them was fatal. Structural or component failure caused 10 accidents, one of which was fatal.

The RWSI team, headed by Air Vice-Marshal (Retd) K. Sridharan, who is the founder and president of the organisation, pointed out two accidents, which took place in July 2007 and August 2008, as cases in point. In both the cases, the helicopters were powered by twin engines and had the capability to negotiate rough weather because they were equipped with weather radars and instrument flight rules (IFR) kit. Pilots of both choppers were experienced. The flights were under visual flight rules (VFR) that allow a pilot to see through in clear weather conditions. However, it appears that the pilots suddenly hit a rough pocket and collided with static obstruction because of loss of visual reference, states an RWSI analysis of the accidents. Put simply, both the machine and the person at the controls stood up to the test of quality and yet the accident happened.

Given this background, says Sridharan, one can see that a number of fatal accidents in recent years happened because of the lack of a basic decision-making process or skills or a combination of both in aborting the flight. This means ignoring weather conditions and delaying decision-making on either attempting an emergency landing or returning to the point of departure by those flying the aircraft, Sridharan told Frontline.

He added that the combination of factors cited above necessitated a sober review of recurrent and refresher training for instrument-aided flying and also proficiency monitoring checks. Along with this, cultural issues, such as the relationship between the pilot and the VIP passenger, also need to be taken up, he said.

The relationship issue has been raised by several sections of the aviation industry, including pilots who contend that there are VIPs who brush aside a pilots well-thought-out reservations on flying in inclement weather and overrule warnings about flying conditions in general.

An accident that took place in Bihar in February 2004 is cited by many aviation experts as a case in point. A senior leader of the then ruling party had virtually goaded an inadequately trained co-pilot to make a landing, which led to a mishap. The VIP had a lucky escape but the chopper suffered substantial damage.

Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader Jay Panda, who is a qualified helicopter pilot trained in the United States and South Africa, responded to Frontline on these issues. He is of the view that any pilot who succumbs to authority and changes his judgment on the flying conditions is not fit to be a pilot. However, he is also not against making an attempt to address the issues involved in such situations through adequate mechanisms. Panda pointed out that the DGCA could not be present at every occasion to implement its directives and nobody should expect a role like that from the agency. In my view some of the DGCA directives do have an element of over-regulation. What is required at this point of time, and in the context of tragedies like the death of Rajasekhara Reddy, is not more regulations but the streamlining of existing ones, Panda said.

According to Sridharan, the aim of the civil aviation sector should be to adopt and follow the mission of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), a body constituted on the basis of the 1997 White House Commission on aviation safety. The IHST aims to reduce helicopter accidents by 80 per cent by 2016. The RWSI is affiliated to the IHST and is a part of its global initiative. If we are to achieve the IHST objective, we need to adopt a comprehensive approach that addresses not merely technical issues, said Sridharan.

The larger questions raised by those like Sridharan and Panda have become part of the debate in the aviation sector in the context of Rajasekhara Reddys death, but these issues may not be part of the frame of reference of the inquiry team formed by the DGCA to investigate the Andhra Pradesh accident.

The team, headed by R.K. Tyagi, Chairman and Managing Director, Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd, has civil aviation sector officers such as Irshad Ahmad and Sanjay Bramhane as its members and Maneesh Kumar as its member secretary.

The constitution of such a department-oriented committee did not find favour with a large number of civil aviation experts. They felt that the investigation should have been an independent one, such as a judicial inquiry, as an inquiry carried out by pliant department officers may fail to address the larger issues involved.

Clearly, there is more to be done to advance and streamline helicopter safety than conducting mechanical investigations into accidents.

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