The percentage of air crashes in India blamed on pilot error is much higher than the global average. What gives?
January 1, 1978. Air India flight 855 crashes in Mumbai. Fatalities: 213 Reason: Pilot error
June 21, 1982. Air India flight 403 crashes in Mumbai. Fatalities: 17 Reason: Pilot error.
February 14, 1990. Indian Airlines flight 605 crashes in Bengaluru. Fatalities: 92 Reason: Pilot error.
May 22, 2010. Air India Express IX812 crashes in Mangalore. Fatalities: 158 Reason: Pilot error.
August 07, 2020. Air India Express 1344 crashes in Kozhikode. Fatalities: 17.
Reason: Investigations are on. But if the initial comments from Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) are anything to go by, the reason for this crash too could be the same: pilot error.
A cursory look through the list of 12 crashes involving commercial flights in India shows that investigations in 10 of them blamed pilot error for the tragedy. At nearly 85 percent, that is much higher when compared to the global average.
A study by aviation website PlaneCrashInfo showed that 49 percent of all fatal air accidents that happened in the world from 1950 to 2010 were a result of pilot error. The second most common cause for these crashes was mechanical, and third was weather.
Overall, adds a study by aircraft manufacturer Boeing, 80 percent of the accidents take place because of human factors, which include pilot error, miscalculation by the air traffic controller or errors by mechanics.
So, what makes for the high incidence of pilot error in India?'Easiest thing to do'
"There is a saying in aviation:
If he is alive, screw him.
If he dead, blame him."
This is what a senior pilot had to say when asked about the crash investigations that have mostly found pilots at fault.
Amit Singh, an industry veteran and Fellow of London's Royal Aeronautical Society, agrees. "It is the easiest thing to do...to blame pilots. Why aren't the errors corrected? There is a systemic fault," he adds.
Especially if a crash plays out in a similar way to an earlier one, says Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety expert who was part of the committee that was set up after the Mangalore crash to suggest way to improve safety standards. "Initial reports have said that there is similarity in the two crashes in Kozhikode and Mangalore, despite them being 10 years apart. Same mistakes committed point to a lack of proper training, or a system," he says.The Ghatkopar crash
Singh cites the example of the investigations into the crash of a Beechcraft King Air aircraft in Mumbai, in 2018, that led to the death of five people. The aircraft was on a test flight, and was operated by UY Aviation, a charter service.
The investigations, led by an Assistant Director at DGCA, point to an error of judgement by the crew, leading to the crash. While that may have been the conclusion, some of the other observations, says Singh, point to serious deficiencies in regulation.
The DGCA investigation itself says that the regulator hadn't cleared an application by UY Aviation to appoint a Chief of Flight Safety, leading to serious lapses in safety standards.
The aircraft's certificate of airworthiness, or CoA in aviation jargon, had lapsed after it was involved in an accident in 2008. It was later repaired in an 'unscientific way.' There was also lack of proper supervision of the aircraft, and concerns raised during audits weren't addressed.
This is what a Parliamentary Labour Committee concluded on the crash: “The agencies informed the committee that the particular aircraft was grounded due to an accident in February 2008, whose CoA (Certificate of Airworthiness) was cancelled and was repaired in non-scientific manner and was taken for a test flight without getting completion/final certificate from the DGCA, is nothing but a criminal negligence which resulted into death of five employees/people”.
Clearly, the crash was not the result of the pilot's error alone.We are humansMultiple pilots Moneycontrol spoke to shared instances where investigations into technical faults during a flight were quick to find fault in them, but did little in corrective action.
"Everyone makes mistakes. But then there is a need to have a system and proper checks and balances to ensure that these errors don't get repeated or become fatal," says a senior pilot.
Many of the pilots specifically underlined the lack of a fatigue management. While it is not yet known if the pilots of Air India Express flight that crashed in Kozhikode had any issue, fatigue was a factor in the 2010, Mangalore crash.
The cockpit voice recorder showed that both the captain and the first officer were stressed. While the captain was asleep for a considerable time of the flight, the first officer had yawned multiple times.
Ranganathan points out that the DGCA had given permission to airlines, operating the Vande Bharat Mission repatriation flights, to extend the duty time of crew. "While the approval should be given on case-by-case basis after examining the crew member's health, here a blanket permission was given."
The Air India Express 1344 flight was flying from Dubai, as part of the repatriation exercise.
Only the cockpit voice recorder and the investigations will tell if the two pilots were under any stress or had fatigue.Says Shakti Lumba, an industry veteran who had held senior positions in IndiGo and Alliance Air: "An aircraft in control does not crash. They only crash once the pilot loses control: The question is why? Reasons can be attributable and not attributable to the pilot. To determine, there is a through investigation to help us learn and change how things are done, made, designed and operated."