Senior pilots say training taking a back seat at Air India

Published : September 15, 2021 12:42 IST

An Air India flight getting ready to take off at Chennai Airport. Photo: The Hindu

Passengers aboard the late afternoon Air India flight AI 451 from Delhi to Visakhapatnam on September 13 could not be faulted if they complained of a bumpy and rather bone-jangling landing at Visakhapatnam airport.

Thankfully, no passengers were hurt or traumatised. But thanks to the bumpy landing, called a “hard landing in aviation jargon when an aircraft hits the ground with far greater vertical speed and force than in a normal landing, Air India had to seek a “special dispensation” from the Director of Air Safety and fly the Airbus A321 aircraft back to Delhi to avoid its grounding.

Though no injuries were reported to the flight or ground crew, senior pilots in the airline squarely pin the blame for the “hard landing” on Air India’s sudden and intriguing penchant to depute directly Boeing 777 and 787 copilots who have no experience flying as the “Pilot in Command” as Captains on the Airbus fleet. Sources said that the “Pilot in Command” of the September 13 Delhi to Visakhapatnam flight was undertaking his first flight as Captain of an Airbus aircraft.

Explained a pilot: “Boeing 777 and 787 copilots who have no experience flying as Pilot in Command are being sent to fly directly as Captains on the Airbus fleet. Boeing and Airbus aircraft have an entirely different philosophy of flying, including in the flight control laws and cockpit controls. For example, while the Boeings have the conventional control yoke, Airbus aircraft have a side stick to control. It takes time to get used to the either of the operating philosophies.”

Besides the safety aspects of “playing smart and shortchanging training methodologies”, Air India’s move has created a logistic issue as well, a shortage of copilots in the Boeing fleet. And the airline is training copilots from the Airbus fleet as copilots on Boeings. An exercise that senior pilots in Air India call “a totally meaningless and wasteful exercise”.

Said a pilot: “Simulator time, which is costly, is being wasted in this manner, apart from other expenses such as hotel accommodation and allowance for trainers engaged in the training. Interestingly, the trainer who trained the Captain of the Delhi-Visakhapatnam flight was himself recommended for corrective training just a week ago during the annual recurrent training on the simulator.” Pilots confessed that instances such as this reflect rather poorly on the quality of training being imparted. Said a pilot: “One of the primary reasons for this is that Air India continues to choose trainers purely based on seniority and not on skill or aptitude.”

Another area of training that has caused consternation among pilots is the circumventing of the requirements laid down by Air India itself when pilots want to upgrade as trainers: Aspirants must be cleared to operate out of all critical airfields in the region. In the Northern Region, the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport at Leh, Ladakh, is one of the critical airfields. But pilots disclosed that some aspiring trainers circumvent this requirement by “flying with another captain instead of flying with a copilot, which is the norm”.

Interestingly, the “hard landing” at Visakhapatnam airport comes just two days after the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau’s inquiry into the August 2020 mishap at Calicut International Airport—when Air India Express Flight 1344 from Dubai to Kozhikode overshot the runway, broke into pieces, killing 21 including both the pilots—indicated that the pilot’s “non-adherence” to standard operating procedure was the probable cause of the accident.