BS READS: Behind crashes at top flying schools - old planes or bad pilots?

Topics BS Reads | aircraft | Aviation

Debris of a plane that crashed in Azamgarh, killing 21-year-old Konark Saran
Twenty-one-year-old Konark Saran was scheduled to add a few more hours to his 125 hours of flying experience before his life was snuffed out on September 21. The trainee pilot from Palwal in Haryana, on board a four-seater TB-20 Trindad aircraft, crashed into fields in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district while flying solo. He was one of the many training to be a commercial pilot at Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udan Academy (IGRUA) at Fursatganj in Amethi.

While a probe has been instituted, investigations in the past have invariably pointed to pilot error as being the principal reason for the accidents. But crashes have become all too common at IGRUA, established by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 and considered to be India’s top pilot training institute. Records show that since 2013, there have been four major accidents at IGRUA, two of which have been fatal. In aviation, where accidents are an anomaly, four major accidents in less than seven years has raised serious questions about the running of IGRUA. Two of these have been over the last year. And its not just IGRUA. There have been 13 accidents at flying schools from 2013 till 2019. Over the past year, five crashes have been reported at various flying training schools in India – almost two crashes annually over the last seven years. Thirty-two flying schools across India have been approved by DGCA, of which eight are owned by state governments while IGRUA is the sole central government-run institute.

Before Saran was killed, a female trainee pilot crash-landed at IGRUA’s runway in October 2019. She miraculously escaped harm. In July 2015, another trainee pilot crash landed her plane at IGRUA’s airfield. In December 2013, Sohail Ansari, a trainee pilot at IGRUA crashed over Chindwara in Madhya Pradesh while on a solo sortie.

“Prima facie it appears the aircraft went into bad weather and the pilot lost control of the plane inside cumulonimbus clouds. The October 2019 crash has also been investigated by Aircraft Accidents Investigations Bureau. The findings indicate pilot error during landing phase which has resulted in the accident” said Krishnendu Gupta, director of IGRUA.

But there are clouds of doubt about the state of affairs at India’s premier flying training institute. In 2017, a departmentally related Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Mukul Roy had raised red flags over IGRUA’s fleet. The Committee noted that 40 per cent of IGRUA’s planes (nine aircraft) had completed their technical life by 2019.

But the last time IGRUA purchased new aircraft was a decade ago in 2009-10. The ill-fated aircraft Saran was flying was manufactured in 1999. Three aircraft of a similar make are still being used to train pilots at IGRUA. The average age of the fleet at IGRUA is 15 years. “These aircraft have not been replaced since they have not yet completed their initial service life beyond which they can continue flying after carrying out the life development programme. It was decided to retire them after their initial service life not because of any technical issue but due to the cost of operation as it will not be an economically viable proposition,” said Gupta.

A Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) spokesperson told Business Standard that the condition of aircraft at IGRUA was beyond doubt. The spokesperson said, “The aircrafts are maintained as per the approved maintenance programme by the maintenance personal holding licence or approval. DGCA carries out surveillance/inspection to ensure that maintenance is carried out as per the approved maintenance programme. It has issued Civil Aviation Requirements to ensure safety of training activities at flying training organisations. DGCA carries out regular surveillance/audits to ensure compliance of these requirements.”

However, in the past DGCA found glaring shortcomings in the way flying schools including IGRUA were being run in the country. Most of its adverse findings pertained to maintenance of planes. It found that there was no documentary evidence of spares and components that were used in aircraft maintenance at flying training schools. It had red flagged serious deficiencies in the functioning of the Directorate of Flying Training (DFT), which operates under DGCA. It noted that in cases involving aircraft accidents or even incidents at flying training schools, the amount of maintenance carried out on the crashed planes was not being adjudged properly. The DGCA noted, “The organisation (Directorate of Flying Training) is not having proper supervision over the maintenance activities as carried out by the certifying personnel. Non availability of supervisory staff leaves room for poor quality of maintenance.”

According to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), an accident is defined as an occurrence in which a person is fatally or seriously injured as a result of being in the aircraft, being in touch with any part of the aircraft or through direct exposure to jet blast. Additionally an accident also includes situations where an aircraft has sustained structural damage or has gone missing and is inaccessible. Any other occurrence that doesn’t include the above but affects the safety of operations is classified as an incident.

But in more ways than one, the crashes at IGRUA have cast a shadow over its functioning. The Modi government reportedly wants to privatise IGRUA and has stopped funding it in recent years. The last time IGRUA got a substantial grant from the government was in 2014-15 when it received an amount of Rs five crore. Since then, most budgetary allocations have been stopped. The non-release of grants would have a significant impact on IGRUA’s operations. The institute charges Rs 42 lakh from every student selected for the course, even as the actual training expenses are Rs 45 lakh. This gap, according to IGRUA, is bridged by government grants; no other subsidy in this basic training fee is given to students, even those from the reserved category. IGRUA generally has 100 seats available every year. Of these, 60 per cent are reserved for various categories, including those from economically weaker sections. In effect, it under-recovers Rs 3 crore annually from training students in a two-year course to obtain commercial pilot licences. Private flying schools charge much higher fees from students-–in many cases almost twice the amount charged by government-run institutes.

 

In its annual report, IGRUA stated that it is a grantee institution and “a large part of its expenditure is borne by the Government of India through capital and revenue grants”. Its losses have also mounted over the years. According to its last financial statements, filed for 2017-18, its expenses exceeded its revenues by Rs 14 crore. This was more than twice its under-recoveries of Rs six crore in 2014-15.

Aircraft maintenance costs comprise a significant proportion of running flying training schools. With 20-year-old planes, these costs are significantly higher. The Diamond aircraft bought by IGRUA cost around Rs three crore each. The Cessna 172 operated by other flying schools cost around Rs 80 lakh. But second-hand planes can be bought at half the price--in many instances cheaper than a high-end sedan.

With IGRUA battling both an ageing fleet and withdrawal of government support, the string of accidents have cast a shadow over the institute’s future. It was considered to be a pet project of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, a trained commercial pilot himself-–a gift to Amethi, the Gandhi family’s pocketborough. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has often taken personal interest in IGRUA’s functioning, even taking up the cause of the dismal placement record of its students in the past.



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