The Delhi High Court on Tuesday directed the Centre and Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) to compensate a serving Indian Air Force officer who was rendered unfit for flying after a MiG-21 crash in 2005, with Rs 5 lakh and Rs 50 lakh respectively saying that officers of the armed forces could not be put to “more risk than they had bargained”.
The Russian-origin fighter aircraft has been often referred to as the “Flying Coffin” and “widowmaker” due to its poor safety record.
A bench of Justice S Ravindra Bhat and Justice Deepa Sharma said putting the officers of the armed forces above what is “expected to be normal risk” is against the fundamental right to life especially the right to work in a safe environment guaranteed under the Constitution.
The bench said HAL is liable to compensate the officer for “exposing him to more than reasonable risk”.
Wing commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila had moved the high court in 2013 seeking direction to the government and HAL to issue a formal apology for the manufacturing defect and the faulty workmanship of the MiG-21 aircraft that allegedly led to the crash.
It was also the first time a crash survivor had sued the government seeking redressal against the violation of his fundamental right to life, especially the right to work in a safe environment, enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution.
The officer, represented by advocate Bharat S Kumar, had alleged that a reply to his RTI on the finding of the Court of Inquiry (COI) revealed that the incident was caused due to poor workmanship and manufacturing defect of HAL.
He further submitted that the intent behind filing the petition was to ensure that “HAL is made accountable and aware of the ramifications of their actions impacting the security of this country.”
Wing commander Kaila has said despite giving representation to the government in 2012 seeking financial compensation he has received nothing.
The officer was posted at Air Force Station Nal in Rajasthan as a Squadron Leader in 2005. On January 4 that year, he embarked on a regular flight exercise along with three other pilots.
“Immediately after take-off, the petitioner experienced a drift to the left side of the aircraft. Simultaneously, the petitioner was informed by the other pilot flying the second aircraft, of a fire at the rear end of his aircraft. Assessing the emergency, the petitioner promptly carried out all the essential directives and got the tyres of the aircraft down for a landing,” his petition said.
“The petitioner performed all the aforementioned actions despite the rear of the aircraft being engulfed in thick fire. Despite a near-complete engine/control failure and at grave risk to his own life, the petitioner continued to stay put in an almost uncontrollable aircraft so as to steer it away to safety from a nearby village... To save human life, the petitioner ejected only seconds before the crash of the aircraft,” the plea added.
Wing Commander Kaila said following the incident, he was injured and was later forced to discontinue flying after a spinal injury deteriorated..