Thursday, September 03, 2009

SAD QUESTIONS

I normally don't just sit down and write about something unless I feel really compelled. YSR Rajasekhara Reddy the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh passed away in a Helicopter crash yesterday, the remains were found this afternoon. His passing away compelled me to write this piece. He was going to visit a Village, an unannounced trip till the last minute, because he just wanted to "drop in" and talk to the villagers one on one and understand their problems without having an entourage of interlocutors.

I met YSR this year with respect to some flight operations. He was very personable, likeable, simple and easy to work with. Even though our contact was brief, he easily remembered my name and called me by my first name. From what I know, rural people loved him a lot, he'd remember everyone's names when he went visiting villages. I was struck by his uncanny ability to remember so much with genuine affection. Even I felt that when I was with him briefly. There was no doubt about his sincerity to work for people. I can't say the same for many politicians. To lose someone like him is rather hurting. I had met his wife and family briefly and my condolences goes out to them in their difficult time. I am not forgetting the others on the Helicopter who also perished, previously I had even met the Security officer Wesley, who died in the crash.

I am sorry for this sad post but I guess it reflects how I am feeling today and the anxiety of the previous day when the Helicopter first went missing. I have to ask some plain and simple questions:

1. Why did they dispatch the Helicopter when the weather was known to be bad? I checked on the weather including satellite maps from Singapore and it was evident that the weather was bad. So, don't tell me otherwise. I'd also ask whether these pilots, even though well experienced, done any CFIT training lately? (CFIT = Controlled Flight Into Terrain)...Does the State Government aviation arm have recurrent courses for CFIT?

2. Does the State Government have a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in place? Are the Aircraft in it's fleet always dispatched under guidance from their manuals or is it just a fill it-shut it-fly it operation?

3. I know that people around VIP's exert a lot of pressure, I have faced it myself quite badly, where they insist on flying at any cost, even when there was a technical problem. My question to them is: Is it worth it? Laloo Prasad Yadav just came on TV and said that yes they do pressurize the pilots to fly and he wanted the pilots to refuse and walk away. Does that happen in India? Air safety is a concept that has to be ingrained in everyone who is connected with it. Drill it into the bureaucrats and others who surround VIP's and add to the pressure on operators and flight crews.

4. Why did the Emergency Locator Trasmitter (ELT) not work? This is supposed to operate automatically in the event of a crash such as this. The time spent in trying to locate the missing Helicopter was unacceptable, nearly 24 hours to search for the crash site...one of the reasons being an inactive ELT. An ELT is a stand-alone system with a separate power supply. The latest version is the ELT 406 which bounces signals off satellites to pin point the location of a crash. Did this Helicopter have this? If so, why was it not working?

These questions are meant for whoever is in charge, to answer. The DGCA (Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation), god bless them, don't even have an updated web site. They came on air saying that the Helicopter that crashed did have a Certificate of Airworthiness, even though their web site said otherwise. They said that their website had not been updated. Talk about inefficiency and confusion caused.

We have had too many Helicopter and general aviation accidents in India. Check this out (not in any order), GMC Balayogi died in a Helicopter crash (Single engine) in bad weather in 2002 prompting the DGCA to insist that all VIP flights have to be done in Twin Engine Helicopters henceforth. OP Jindal died similarly in a Helicopter crash in 2005. Another Bell 430 (same as the one that YSR passed away) crashed killing the pilots and engineer on board last year (2008), belonging to a private company that charters these machines. Madhav Rao Scindia died in a ratty old King Air in 2001 in very bad weather with two most inexperienced pilots at the controls who also lost their lives. There are many more, I only cited some accidents that had VIP's on board. Makes me think...is general aviation safety audit really done properly in India? How many crashes need to take place before someone does something about fixing general Aviation in India?

Sad day for India and for the families of the deceased and for others who knew the people on this Helicopter and for aviation. The last one can be fixed. Do we have the professionalism in India to fix it?

19 comments:

Dew said...

Not just that Captain, I feel disappointed by the system, this is not the first time, I have heard or read in the newspapers too about crashes even otherwise, where the fighter pilots have lost lives. I mean how can we be so careless??? I am angry at this moment because all we do now is sit and cry over the spilt milk....but never try to be efficient in order to avoid such disasters...!!! It's a matter of someone's life, someone's loved ones who wait for their safe comeback!

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

True Dew. There's too many things going on and with the system being what it is, corruption being what it is, many lives are lost. As for carelessness, I agree completely, I can't see how we can sit back as a society and take things so easy about everything. I wonder sometimes, are we a society that does not value life or won't bother about anything as long as it does not affect us? Are we all just expendable? One day news item and then forgotten? I thought I usually knew all the answers, these days all I have are questions. It is distressing.

Vishwas Krishna said...

One incident which comes to my mind is the air crash of actor Soundarya and her brother near b'lore. As you said, there could be more, but why don't the pilots or whoever has the power of final say, take a call on the safety and decline to proceed if all is not well. I'm not sure how the system works, but isn't it simple logic that everyone avoids going out while it is raining or about to rain. What stopped them from applying this logic when they very well knew the climatic conditions. Now, the question is who is "them"?

Swaram said...

Such a thoughtful article Captain :( I sincerely hope someone reads n answers these qs :( Its plain ridiculous that we r so careless were lives of people r involved! One person who ws gng to do something gud hd to face such a death :(
I just hope lessons are learnt this time around. God bless his family and may his soul rest in peace!

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Yes Vishwas, I remember the Soundarya air crash too. That was another scam. The Aircraft was never in a certifiable state and was badly loaded. The Engines were in very poor shape. There were too many things wrong and that Airplane had no right to fly that day or any other day. What happened after the crash? The inquiry was simply brushed under the carpet. The operator was still around in aviation for quite a long time flying junk Aircraft around. This is the kind of lack of oversight by the regulatory authorities that I am talking about. Add to the fact that the operator was well connected and perhaps used money power to squirm out of anything....this is what ails us as a society.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Hi Swaram, you know the latest I heard is that the home ministry is going to recommend some measures including fitting VIP Aircraft with satellite phones (I already have that in our small jet and we fly regular chaps as well as VIP's here in Singapore) and also fitted with "effective transponders". I'd like to see the full recommendation. Effective Transponders is not even the right term to use. As for the ELT Emergency Locator Transmitter, the DGCA rules say that No Aircraft may be dispatched with an inoperable ELT. So, I don't get what the Home Ministry is saying.

I hope they get a professional committee to look into this entire issue of standards and procedures first and foremost. That must be stressed.

I pray that all five souls rest in peace. For a very short time I came to know many in CM security, Wesley was one of them.

Dew said...

That's disgusting...! Just because he was a Chief Minister now they would take appropriate steps...his news are flashing all over... I mean certainly nothing against our honorable CMof course, but for me any life is as important as a CM's or an ordinary labor...? They wre sleeping when Soundarya and many such oders lost their lives too? Media gets news for a week to flash, the politicians who cry get a hype, what about the sufferings of the family?

ER Ramachandran said...

Very well written, Captain. Thanks. Though not directly connected with the helicopter /VIP crashes, till recently there were too many crahes with MIG planes so much so they were called 'flying coffins'.We lost lot of young Pilots probably more due to the fault of the engines than their flying Skills. Don't you think something must be done to correct this once and for all? I remember having read Russians accusing India of buying cheaper spares from East European countries to cut down the cost of spares inventory.For the young airforce officers, there is no one to take up their interest ( Unlike the VIP cases).I remember one cadet's mother fighting it alone all by herself to clear her son's name

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Dew: Media lives on TRP's based on how much they can hype things. Even Barkha Dutt (NDTV) on Twitter says maybe TV channels have gone overboard on covering this tragedy and that maybe the channels are afraid to be the first one to get off the treadmill!

There were a few other crashes last year in India involving a Premier 1 executive jet (in good weather) flown by someone who was ill trained, I would not have let him fly even a kite (only crew were on board and although Aircraft was destroyed, no one was killed) and then a Bell 430 Helicopter that went down killing the crew on board (pilots and engineer only) and that was a complicity of errors and bad weather. Where was the media then? Aviation watchers and those in the Industry only know about these things. Who remembers those lives lost? What came of those inquiries?

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

ERR Sir, welcome back. Long time.
Very true about the Mig 21 Aircraft. But generally the Air Force has an abysmal record of flight safety. Where do I begin?

There has been many crashes this year itself. The latest Sukhoi 30 MK1 crashed end of April 2009 both pilots ejected and one did not survive. An AN 32 crashed killing 13 IAF officers on board, this June 2009. End of July two IAF pilots were killed near Air Force Academy. The Indian Navy lost a pilot when he crashed his Sea harrier jump jet into the sea off Goa last month.

This is completely unacceptable. The old Mig 21 crashes were due to the spares issue as you mentioned and poor transition training, the same holds good even now. WHERE are the Advanced Jet Trainers that India was planning to buy to help ease the transition from low speed piston and turboprop trainers to high speed jets? That is a scam isn't it? Many promises were made, at every Air Show in the World that IAF would buy these AJT's. Where are they 10 years later? We send our young people to literally become men overnight in a super fast machine. Rang De Basanti was no fiction. Unfortunately, these brave soldiers are quickly forgotten.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Please read this piece in today's Indian Express Online and you'd be scared looking at statistics (36 civilian Helicopter crashes in India from 1990 to 2009):

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/helipilot-speaks-up-vips-please-let-us-fly/512645/

The regulators are fast asleep at the wheel!

YOSEE said...

Mr.Reddy's fate was really hearbreaking. He had a good name among aam-janata and for once when everyone on TV praises the dead man skyhigh, we can agree its not faked tears. While watching the search operation on the first day, we were also dismayed at why anyone would want to fly in rotten weather conditions.And in aircraft that are in less than perfect flying condition.....but then, all these come up only after the event. Now that a VIP is killed, lets hope the powers that be wake up , pull up their socks and get their act together.... They can at least start using GSP locators, which i hear are not too expensive for the govt.It was sickening to see that the wreckage could not be located for one whole day, in this technological age !

avdi said...

These are indeed the right questions to be asked. Not turn the whole issue into a screamfest, which is what TV presenters do usually.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Yosee: True YSR had a mass base, not seen in Andhra Pradesh for a long time and he came from the grassroots level winning every single time as MLA and MP. Can't do that without people backing you every time. Regarding GSM locators, these only work if the cell phone is kept on. Usually we ask passengers to keep the phone switched off. Actually, like I mentioned in my blog, if the ELT was working (it is mandatory-cannot take off with an inoperative ELT, its a clear no-go) there is no need for any other locating device. The latest versions of the ELT are very accurate and meant for all Aircraft. GSM locator is a good redundancy measure if all else fails like it did in this case. GSM locator basically triangulates the GSM handset signal and locates the source. This will not work if the occupants are using non GSM phones such as CDMA. There are no civil CDMA locators available at this time.

This crash is a result of multiple failures in the system that allows dispatch of the Helicopter in such weather conditions in the first place. State Governments and private operators need to have a safety audit done asap, so that operations and maintenance procedures are clearly understood. When one deviates from a Standard Operating Procedure, accidents are inevitable. Terrible to lose people to a completely avoidable event.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Thanks Avdi, some of the TV presenters are using all the wrong aviation terminology even when the "expert" comes in an explains. Some of these presenters appear clearly as actors, not serious journalists. Sad reporting of a sad event.

Happy Kitten said...

Thanks for the touching post..

The first question that came into all our minds was how the copter was allowed to fly in a such a bad weather condition.. nd yes.. we had a Major explain in the Malayalam channels that it was very difficult to say “no” to VIP’s and that rules ought to be made were the final decision should come from those who knows flying. Even if YSR was a good man and he had only the good of his people in mind, democracy should not allow leaders to take irresponsible decisions.

As for maintenance, even Air India is now facing the same neglect.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Happy Kitten: True, I agree with you. That's why I recommend a revisit of the Standard Operating Procedures for all non scheduled operators and also State Government Aviation arms. Decision to fly should be the final call of the Pilot In Command as it is the rule World wide and practiced strictly.
Regarding Air India, it is becoming a sad story, one of National shame, it's cup of woes is brimming over and the response from the owners (GOI) is pathetic.

Kamini said...

Excellent post. I hope this gives a jolt to those in whom an expectation of sycophancy is inbred, and who expect people to jump at their every order regardless of safety or rules.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Kamini: Thanks for your comment. There should be no deviation from the Standard Operating Procedure regardless of who is flying. This should be more inbred in pilots (in India particularly) than anything else.