Mangalore airport: The cliff is here to stay

Mangalore airport:  The cliff is  here to stay

In 1991, soon after Indian Airlines had a spate of accidents, Air Marshal Keelor was appointed Adviser to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Chief Flight Inspector. He set up the Flight Inspection department in DGCA for the civil aviation industry. His work was commended by ICAO.

Asked about Mangalore airport’s fitness in the wake of the recent air crash, the high-flying officer, who has flipped both sides of the coin - as a fighter pilot living on the edge as a combat imperative, and as head of flight safety for the civil aviation industry - is unequivocal that innocent passengers’ lives cannot be put to risk. “The cliff (at Mangalore  airport) is here to stay,” he warns. Excerpts of an interview with Gayathri Nivas:

Is the Mangalore airport fit for continued operations?

This is the controversy raging  now. The airport is not suited for the Boeing 737-800/Airbus 320 class of aircraft because it does not cater for the type of emergency where the aircraft cannot be stopped on the runway. The original perception was that such an emergency would not occur. This myth has literally exploded in the face of those who believed in this. The lesson to be learnt is to cater for the worst, before putting innocent passengers’ lives to risk.

The only option the government has is to use the ATR aircraft which is safe for operations at the Mangalore airfield.in its present state and stop all big jets from operation here. There is severe resistance to this as the government/ management will lose face and this will be an admission of guilt.

Senior officers, even from the Air Force, say the airport is safe for jet operations since the length of the runway is enough for take offs and landings.

Per se , this is correct but what about the fitness of the airport to cater for emergencies when, for so many reasons, the aircraft is forced into the over run area? The cliff is here to stay and there is no logic why passengers should be exposed to the risk it poses, again. While some professionals are choosing to be blind, your ex-Chief Minister, Mr Krishna, has put his apprehensions about the dangers of the Mangalore airport very clearly.  

The DGCA has certified this runway as safe for operations by big jets?

This only shows that the DGCA is a part of the establishment and is there to do as he is told. Though this accident has proved beyond doubt that the airport is, indeed, unsafe and that there is no more devastating way to demonstrate this, they are still maintaining that the certifications is valid and that the airport is of international standard - my foot! Putting passengers to risk due to political/commercial compulsions is prohibited and unacceptable.

What is the scope of pilot error in this crash?

No pilot can go so much off the standard unless forced to by unpredicted forces. In the final analysis, if neither the pilot nor the management are unable to identify them, these operations have to remain suspended.

For a civil aviation pilot, safety of the flight and passengers is paramount and uncompromising. However, he takes on any commitment assigned to him and stretches himself to carry it out safely. It is up to the management to ensure that the task assigned to him is within his capability and that the infrastructure is safe for operations. This does not only cover normal operations but caters for all types of emergencies that may arise due to unforeseen circumstances. In the case of Mangalore, the cliffs at each end of the runway are critical consideration for the management and cannot be ignored as it was. The responsibility for operating in these critical conditions is first and last, that of the management and those directing them. They cannot put the blame on the pilot.

The DGCA says this is the only major accident of the decade, as if presenting a retrospective aviation album?

In the aviation world, Flight Safety is a department unto itself. Its target is a zero accident rate. It is based on a very strong “Accident Prevention Programme, rather than cure” and laid down, proven and tested processes for every aspect of operations. It is a firm conviction that strict adherence to these processes lead to flight safety.

Professional Flight Safety Training Courses are conducted abroad to qualify and certify officers for this discipline. Flight Safety Officers are trained professionals and develop a perception, more discerning than others. In 1990, I succeeded in establishing the flight inspection system in spite of stiff resistance from
the DGCA (an IAS Officer) and his staff (all non pilots). The reason was that  the power and authority of the inspection system eroded the traditional authority they enjoyed.
The accident rate, from a horrifying 10 accidents, came down to zero. After I left, the system ceased to exist until revived again by Parliamentary intervention. After some time, it again stopped functioning, and as I understand, it is not effective. In all major countries, the Flight Inspection System is the main instrument to lay down standards, for inspection and certification of air and cabin crew and render professional advice. In India it is marginalised.

When the decision to activate the Mangalore airport was taken, you were the Chief Flight Inspector in the DGCA?

Yes, I had with me a group of top pilots as inspectors. We were not consulted. The whole process was conducted by the then DGCA and his Deputy. The operations of Indian Airline was cleared by them. The risk factors of a short runway, no overshoot area and cliff were ignored. They expected the pilots to deal with these limitations without even an error and did not look beyond this.

Air India CMD has gone on television to say his pilots, aircraft and the airport is the best?

If that be so then his BEST is not good enough or safe enough. Now it has become a prestige issue to open the airport for big jets and save face rather than say sorry, we made a mistake, we are deeply pained by this horrific accident causing death to so many passengers and we will ensure that steps are taken to ensure that they are not exposed to any risk in future. Do you think they have the courage!!!!

Is it true that Indian aviation record is cleaner than the global record?

Air India's Flight Safety Record is perhaps the worst in the world. Apart from this accident, the number of incidents, near misses and ground accidents are more than any of the airlines in the country.
 What is even worse is the nature of the incidents,  like taxiing an aircraft fully loaded with passengers with the fuel leaking from the engine which then caught fire  resulting in an emergency evacuation, backing out an aircraft from its bay with the bridge still connected, inadvertent raising of the undercarriage from its parking bay, pilots sleeping in the cockpit and over-flying its destination, in flight fights between pilots and cabin crew etc. To this you may add the lapses by the ATC causing near misses/collisions many times in the last four years.

How does Indian flight safety testing fare vis a vis global best practises?

All countries have their challenges . We have only now started catching up with the world. However this modernisation is focused on the five international airports. Our pilots are as good. The ATC has to catch up. They are inexperienced. They manage half the number of aircraft per hour than abroad. We have congested skies still due to lack of infrastructure. This will be okay soon.

Could Mangalore air crash have been prevented?

The ATC had no role to play in this accident. Yes, if the runway over run area was according to specifications, as all other certified runways have, and the cliff was not there, the accident could have been averted. In fact,  both these factors converted what could have been an over run of the aircraft to a catastrophe.


Crash Course

The Ministry of Civil Aviation and its regulatory body, the DGCA, and even the Indian representative in ICAO, which is the apex world body regulating aviation, are all manned by IAS officers. They determine aviation policy. The officers in charge of flight safety in the DGCA are engineers. The pilots’ certification is done by ground staff. The Flight Inspection department, if and when it existed, were some times consulted. In this  type of a hierarchy, the pilot has no say. The private airlines are also effected by this and are bullied. These are hard facts staring us in the face after the May 22 air crash at Mangalore airport, killing 158 passengers and crew.

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