Two serious incidents in two months point to Air India grappling with training issues

Published : October 23, 2021 20:39 IST

Aircraft belonging to Air India parked at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. Photo: MANISH SWARUP/AP

Two serious incidents over a two-month period involving Air India pilots have caused consternation in aviation circles. And both incidents involve Boeing 777 and 787 pilots that the airline’s operations department has upgraded as Captains on the Airbus fleet.

The first incident involved a “hard landing” (when an aircraft hits the ground with far greater vertical speed and force than in a normal landing) at Visakhapatnam airport on September 13. The other involved an aircraft lurching sharply towards a mountain as the pilot commenced a turn in the wrong direction at the same airport on October 9. Categorised as a terrain proximity incident, reliable sources told Frontline that a major disaster was averted only because the aircraft’s terrain warning system switched on and warned the pilot of his wrong manoeuvre.

According to several pilots, the genesis of both these incidents lies in the recent tinkering and shortchanging of training methodologies at Air India by the airline’s operations department. After the September 13 incident and with changes in the training of pilots being contemplated, a few senior pilot trainers had raised the issue, expressing the opinion that the simulator training syllabus for these pilots was inadequate.

One of the recommendations made by the Executive Director of Training was to enlarge the syllabus. And it was implemented in the cases of a few sets of trainees. However, after a senior officer from the operations department intervened and rejected the proposed syllabus, training reverted to the original syllabus.

A senior pilot explained to Frontline: “There are several very experienced captains, many of whom were trainers in the Airbus fleet who were deputed to the Boeing 787 fleet as captains. They had an extensive syllabus of 24 hours of fixed base simulator training, followed by another 32 hours of full flight simulator training. And for some of these pilots it was their fourth aircraft type as a captain. In contrast, the Boeing co-pilots who are being trained as captains for the first time on the Airbus fleet are being trained on the fixed base trainer for only 8 hours, followed by the usual 32 hours in the full motion flight simulator.”

A fallout over the issue resulted in Air India’s Chief Pilot of the Airbus fleet expressing his unwillingness to continue in the post. Air India was then forced to look for a replacement. The airline has circulated an internal memo to a number of examiners inviting applications for the post of Chief Pilot, Airbus fleet.

Though no injuries were reported to passengers, the flight or ground crew, senior pilots in the airline squarely pin the blame for the incidents on Air India’s 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 told Frontline that the “Pilot in Command” of the September 13 Delhi to Visakhapatnam flight was undertaking his first flight as Captain of an Airbus aircraft.

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