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DGCA looking into incident involving Air India flight that resulted in an ‘air turnback’

Published : May 02, 2022 18:02 IST T+T-
File picture of an Air India aircraft at the Bengaluru airport.

File picture of an Air India aircraft at the Bengaluru airport.

As the pilot’s ‘Defect Register’ page and the ECAM printout precisely indicate, the warning on the ECAM system triggered at 1234 GMT, warranting an abort of the takeoff since the aircraft was at around 80 knots, and well below the ‘Go/No Go Decision’ or V1 (Velocity 1) speed.

India’s civil aviation regulatory body, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is looking into an incident where a senior pilot, during a routine Bengaluru-New Delhi flight on April 28, is said to have failed to adhere to a warning from the Electronic Control And Monitoring (ECAM) system warranting an aborting of takeoff. The noncompliance of the pilot of Air India flight AI 503 to reject takeoff (RTO) has been reported by the flight engineers to the DGCA.

As the pilot’s ‘Defect Register’ page and the ECAM printout precisely indicate, the warning on the ECAM system triggered at 1234 GMT, warranting an abort of the takeoff since the aircraft was at around 80 knots, and well below the ‘Go/No Go Decision’ or V1 (Velocity 1) speed. V1 speed is defined as the speed beyond which take off should no longer be aborted and below which speed the pilot should abort take off and apply all necessary matters to bring the aircraft to a halt.

Despite ignoring the ECAM warning and getting airborne, the pilots soon realised they could not continue because the ECAM warning persisted and would not allow the aircraft, as and when it climbed above 10,000 feet, to get pressurised.

The pilots’ ‘air turnback’, which occurs when an aircraft returns to land at the departure aerodrome without the pilots’ having initially planned to do so, is a reportable incident.

Confirming the incident, the Director General, DGCA, Arun Kumar, told Frontline : "We are looking into this. There was an air turnback which was reported. The digital flight data recorder (DFDR) and other evidence (are) being scrutinised."

Sources in the Flight Safety department told Frontline that the pilots had also not carried out the mandatory ‘Over/Maximum Weight Landing’ procedure, which includes configuring the airplane, landing with a reduced rate of sink and applying the right speed during approach. Failure to adhere to this procedure could risk the undercarriage collapsing and the engines impacting the ground, resulting in a fire and a major safety hazard.

The pilot in charge (PIC) initially entered the snag as an ‘avionics system fault’ in the pilot’s ‘Defect Register’. This was then struck out and changed to ‘skin valve fault’. Sources also pointed out that the PIC, who incidentally had been promoted as an examiner by the erstwhile management of Air India just prior to the airline being hived off, was carrying out the command release check of one of the pilots who was converting to the Airbus fleet from the airline’s Boeing 777 fleet. As reported by Frontline there have been issues regarding pilots converting from the Boeing fleet to the Airbus fleet. 

According to flight safety expert Capt Mohan Ranganathan, for an examiner to ignore an ECAM warning on the ground is unacceptable. Ranganathan said: "The pilot had to land back as with that warning he couldn’t have continued. If it had been a check on a simulator and a captain under check did what he did, he would have failed him."

Aviators opined that these sorts of incidents were occurring on account of insufficient training. According to sources at Air India, pilots who are converting from the Boeing to the Airbus fleet, are being provided with only four hours of training during their ‘Fixed Base Simulator’ sessions, whereas their counterparts in other airlines, including Tata-owned, are being provided with 36 hours of the same training.

Simulator training is of two kinds, ‘Fixed Base’ platform and a ‘Full Flight’ platform with some motion cues absent. The DGCA only lays down the minimum required syllabus for the ‘Full Flight’ portion, which consists of eight sessions of four hours each. It is left to the operator airline to decide the Fixed Base portion depending on the experience level of the trainees.

Sources pointed out that several instructors of the Airbus fleet had objected to the insufficient syllabus and the Executive Director Training had even increased the syllabus to 24 hours of Fixed Base training. But the Director of Operations had struck it down and reverted back to four hours of Fixed Base training on the simulator.

Incidentally, several senior pilots, among them examiners (including the present Chief of Operations Capt R.S. Sandhu) who have vast experience as captains and trainers on three different types of aircraft had undergone 24 hours of Fixed Base training when they converted from the Airbus to the Boeing fleet.