The country’s air mishap probing agency has completed probes in only nine of the 28 cases sent to them for investigation since 2012. The Air Accident Investigation Bureau’s (AAIB) dismal record, since its inception in 2011, came to light after the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) asked it to probe the recent mid-air scare, where pilots of a Mumbai-Brussels Jet Airways flight slept, causing the plane to plunge 5,000 feet in Turkish airspace.
The DGCA move was meant to send a strong message to airlines that they would face harsh punishment for air safety violations. However, data on AAIB’s performance paints a sorry picture of the agency’s investigation record. Prabhat Kumar, chief of DGCA, and Asok Kumar, who heads the AAIB, did not respond to HT’s calls and queries about the statistics sent over SMS. One of the mishaps AAIB is probing is the March 12, 2012, incident, when an Air India plane from Ahmedabad banged its tail on the Mumbai runway, causing serious damage to the aircraft, putting the lives of 121 fliers at risk. Independent air safety experts called it an ‘open and shut’ case, blaming the new woman commander’s poor training record for the mishap. “A ‘tailstrike’ of an Airbus A319 is unheard of because of the short length of the aircraft,” said a senior Airbus commander, requesting anonymity.
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However, AAIB’s records show the ‘investigation in still on’. AAIB’s counterparts in other countries complete probes in less than a month, sometimes even in a couple of weeks. On May 31, a Gulfstream aircraft veered off the runway before hitting the navigational aids and catching fire at the Hanscom Field Airport at Bedford, US. The National Transport Safety Board (NTSB), the US special task force that probes transport accidents across rail, road, air and water transport, published a detailed report on its website in less than two weeks.
The report contained all details – the crew’s last call outs before the incident, the pilots’ flying record, the aircraft’s maintenance history, etc. India’s air safety ranking has plunged to new a low this year. On January 31, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US aviation regulator, reduced the ranking to Category 2, putting India alongside Ghana, Curacao, Serbia and Bangladesh. Aviation minnows such as Malta, Fiji, Guatemala, Suriname, Samoa and even Pakistan have Category I rating.
Aviation experts said the reason why India and Indiabased airlines are involved in many mishaps is the country’s aviation safety investigators underreport such incidents. For instance, on March 10, 2012, Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council (CASAC), a governmentappointed independent watchdog created after the May 2010 Air India Express crash at Mangalore, reported a hard landing (rapid or steep descent made with thud) made by a flight from Jaipur to Chandigarh. Despite producing details on how the unsafe touchdown caused severe damage to the plane’s nose wheel, the DGCA ignored the note and recorded the case as a ‘minor incident’.
“According to Annex 13 of the Chapter on accident investigations issued by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (UN appointed aviation watchdog), the objective of accident investigation is to prevent another one. Unfortunately, India covers up all mishaps as incidents and that is why so many occur,” said Mohan Ranganathan, former member of CASAC. Experts said the real problem was the formation of the AAIB. Unlike the US, where the NTSB works without any interference from the FAA, its safety regulator, the AAIB comprises of the same DGCA officials who already have too much to do owing to massive staff shortage.
One of the principal reasons behind the recent downgrade of India’s international safety rankings by the FAA was acute shortage of staff in the DGCA. What’s worse, a majority of these officials are facing inquiries. According to civil aviation ministry records, at least 19 DGCA officials, including those of joint director general ranks, are facing vigilance probes. The vigilance department has recommended ‘major penalty’ in all the 19 cases, but most of them are pending. In some cases, the officials facing inquiry have retired, showed the data available with HT.