On a slippery slope
It is deplorable, the way pilots landing at Indian airports are being increasingly forced to come home on a wing and a prayer. According to a study reported in this paper, there were nine incidents in the last three months of passenger jets skidding off wet runways after landing at various airports. That these statistics come close on the heels of the Tam Airbus crash in Sao Paulo last Wednesday, which killed 200 people, makes them even more disturbing. For heavy rain and inadequate runway length apparently caused the Sao Paulo crash: a chilling reminder of the unsafe runways in use at our own international airfields. It is no secret that most airports here operate under conditions that date back to the time they were built. As a result, airliners often land on slippery runways originally designed to take such aircraft loads only in light rain.
Add to this the fact that most of the country’s 200-odd airports have landing strips nowhere near the 9,000-foot-length safety benchmark, and you have conditions readymade for dicey landings and take-offs. The expansion of Indian aviation has led to a deterioration of infrastructure and an acute shortage of trained hands, which translates into a dilution of standards for pilots and engineers. The violation of norms in flight schools is alarming as they churn out rookie pilots who, with barely a couple of hundred flying hours and a short jet endorsement under their belts, become first officers on high performance jet aircraft. It is a Hobson’s choice for authorities to augment the groaning airport infrastructure that often prompts planes to land on slippery runways, or fly dangerously close to each other.
Only by bringing professionalism and accountability to the system can these problems be sorted out. Outdated ground equipment and rules, for instance, must be changed — be it replacing non-precision approaches using very high frequency omni-directional range finders with accurate global positioning systems, or introducing area navigation approaches (independent of the ground controllers). To paraphrase H.G. Wells, the choice is safer skies, or nothing.