Ground reality

Print edition : June 03, 2011

E.K. BHARAT BHUSHAN, Director General of Civil Aviation. - NAGARA GOPAL

An investigation into a faulty landing by a pilot exposes many corrupt practices in the DGCA, including the issuing of fake licences.

THE recent media expose of nepotistic practices in the office of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which monitors air safety systems and issues licences to pilots, has opened a Pandora's box for the country's civil aviation sector.

While at one level a few DGCA officials, in collusion with touts, are said to have issued fake licences, at another level some senior officials allegedly used their influence to get their sons and daughters recruited as pilots and staff in private airlines. The officials whose children work with airlines include two joint directors general.

A DGCA investigation into the improper landing of an Indigo Airlines flight in Goa in January led to the discovery of more shocking failures of the DGCA. The pilot of the Indigo flight from Delhi, Parminder Kaur Gulati, landed the aircraft on its nose wheel at the Goa airport. The aircraft had 100 passengers on board. Shockingly, it was cleared to fly back to Delhi. Midway through the flight, technical issues with the aircraft's nose gear forced the pilot to return to the Goa airport and offload the passengers.

Normally, the rear wheels of an aircraft, which form part of the main landing gear (MLG), touch down first during landing. Simultaneously, the speed of the airplane is brought under control. Only then does the nose wheel, which is part of the nose landing gear (NLG), come in contact with the runway. Parminder Kaur Gulati's unconventional method of landing and the high risk of accident associated with it were enough to raise many eyebrows in the office of the DGCA and prompted it to investigate the matter.

A joint investigation by the DGCA, Airbus and Indigo Airlines found that on many occasions Gulati had landed the plane at an unusual angle, which allowed the nose wheel to touch down first. She was taken off flying duty and asked to correct her landing technique. She was also advised to do a cockpit resource management refresher course and a route check course. Incidentally, these courses are minimum requirements to acquire a flying licence. Digging deeper, the DGCA investigation found that the marksheet of the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) examination that Gulati had submitted was a forged one. A co-pilot with a commercial pilot licence, or CPL (issued by a flying school), has to pass this examination conducted by the DGCA to be eligible to become a captain or commander of an aircraft. (Gulati took this examination in January 2009.)

On March 15, Gulati and another pilot, Jitender Kishen Verma of Air India, were arrested for having produced forged marksheets. The police said they had paid Rs.12 lakh and Rs.15 lakh to acquire an ATPL. Jitender Verma had been with Air India for 22 years. Fingers now pointed at the DGCA, which approves pilots and gives them their flying licences.

As many as 27 pilots have been arrested so far on the charge of producing fake marksheets to get ATPLs. Of them, 16 were discovered by the Rajasthan Anti-Corruption Bureau and 11 by the DGCA.

The Crime Branch of the Delhi Police is investigating the connivance of DGCA officials in the matter. Four employees of the DGCA were arrested on the charge of having violated procedures since 2004 to issue ATPLs. Two of them, M.J. Bhattacharya and Mohammed K. Ansari, were charged with helping pilots procure CPLs, and the other two, Pradeep Kumar from the Licensing Department and R.K. Passi, Safety Director in the DGCA, were accused of having a hand in issuing ATPLs to undeserving candidates. A few touts were also arrested. R.K. Passi's daughter, Garima Passi, who was flying for SpiceJet, was suspended recently for possessing a fake flying licence.

The DGCA said that around 10,000 licences (both CPLs and ATPLs) of pilots and commanders, especially those issued in the past two years, would be under the scanner. Of them, around 4,500 ATPLs are under the scanner. The forgeries that have come to light were made in various stages of the qualification process. A candidate has to clear three subjects Aviation Meteorology, Radio Aids and Instruments, and Air Navigation to get an ATPL. According to the police, fake documentation was made in areas where the pilots had failed. A Delhi Police Crime Branch official said that the arrested DGCA officials said during questioning that the DGCA issued at least 60 fake licences in the past three years.

THE FOUR MEN, including a senior official of the DGCA and a pilot, who were arrested by the Crime Branch of Delhi Police in connection with the fake licence scam, in New Delhi.-KAMAL SINGH /PTI

Director General of DGCA E.K. Bharat Bhushan, who has initiated a process to stem the rot in the regulatory body, said two types of frauds were committed to obtain pilot licences. One related to not passing the CPL examination and producing fake marksheets to procure the flying licence, and the other involved flying schools crediting to candidates more flying hours than they had actually flown.

Bharat Bhushan said candidates submitted fake marksheets to the licensing department, which without verification passed them on to the division responsible for issuing the licences . We are developing a coordination mechanism between different divisions of the DGCA so that such fallacies do not happen again, he said.

Rigorous process

There is a huge demand for ATPLs but the process of acquiring them is a rigorous one. The booming aviation industry in the last decade has meant that salaries and jobs in this sector have increased. With increasing competition among private airlines, salaries of captains have rocketed to an all-time high, attracting many youngsters to the profession. India has 40 flying schools, which offer training for huge fees. Many young people from well-off backgrounds go abroad for training and easily get flying licences.

In most of these flying schools, the required number of flying hours for a CPL is flouted openly. Where there should be a minimum 200 hours of flying, the private schools issue CPLs after a candidate has flown an aircraft for 40 to 50 hours. Many foreign flying schools also flout these norms. That is why we have started an audit of all the 40 schools in India from the last week of April, said Bhushan. It is in these flying schools that the candidates come in contact with touts who claim to know some DGCA official or the other and guarantee them an ATPL. The touts also specialise in acquiring fake marksheets or even a fake CPL if the candidate is not able to pass the flying school examination.

In a competitive industry like aviation, private airlines also do not spend enough time verifying licences and recruit people with a superficial understanding of flying. To meet the demand, flying standards have been compromised by the DGCA, some aviation experts say. The regulatory body has brought down the total flying hours required to become a commander to 1,500 hours in 2009 from 3,500 hours in 1993. To make matters worse, the DGCA, between 2005 and 2009, did away with the need to pass physics and mathematics at the senior secondary level to train for a CPL.

Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi also stepped in to set right the regulatory process of the DGCA. I have given directions to the DGCA to look into the issue of fake institutions and fake certificates. A person who tries to give a fake certificate is playing with human lives. It is a very dangerous game. I hope all private airlines and Air India make it their duty to scrutinise the certificates when they are submitted by an applicant, said Ravi to a national television channel.

The DGCA says it faces a severe shortage of manpower. The DGCA has just 140 employees to monitor 82 airports in the country. Two years ago, we had told the government that we have 420 vacant posts, but not even one recruitment has been made thanks to a cumbersome process. However, with this episode, a Cabinet note has been moved to recruit 420 personnel. This should make things a little easier for us, said Bharat Bhushan.

Only time will tell whether the sudden attention towards a system overhaul and the installation of genuine regulatory mechanisms will be taken to its desired end that of ensuring passenger safety in the air.

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