Soundarya death: Operator grounded
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has directed Agni Aerospace Academy to suspend all its air operations till investigations into the crash of its ill-fated Cessna-180 aircraft Saturday were completed.
Confirming this here Thursday, Agni Chief Executive Arvind Sharma told IANS the firm had grounded its fleet of small aircraft and microlights at the Jakkur aerodrome, located on the outskirts of Bangalore.
"Since the DGCA inquiry into the crash is going on, we have agreed to suspend all our flying activities until further notice. We will, however, resume our aircraft manufacturing and maintenance of clients' fleet of aircraft from next week," Sharma said.
Agni, however, petitioned the DGCA to allow its training programmes to continue, using its 10-seater twin-engine Islander aircraft, as one isolated incident should not hamper its flying operations.
The crash of the four-seater Cessna Saturday soon after take-off led to the tragic death of South Indian actress Soundarya and three others, including her brother Amarnath, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activist Ramesh Kadam and pilot Joy Philips.
"Since the investigations are still being carried out by the DGCA, I will not be able to throw much light on the exact cause of the unfortunate mishap.
"It would suffice to say the aircraft was not only certified airworthy, but was also cleared to take off by the local air traffic control (ATC) from the western airstrip of the aerodrome, which is owned and maintained by the state (Karnataka) government.
"Our own preliminary findings indicate the aircraft took a turn towards the westerly direction at a low altitude of about 100 feet. At that point, we don't know what exactly happened that made it to plunge headlong and hit the ground across the airstrip, exploding on impact," Sharma recalled.
The DGCA is probing into all angles to ascertain what led to the crash. The aircraft wreckage, including the engine, has been shifted from the accident spot to the Agni's complex in the aerodrome for inspection and tests.
A team of investigators is also inspecting the documents of the single-engine aircraft after they were seized from the aviation firm. The engine, which survived the crash, is being taken to Mumbai for examination by specialists at the DGCA workshop.
"We are trying to reconstruct the flight path the aircraft took and check the parameters under which it crashed. We are looking at the various possibilities that might have forced the pilot to make a turn then, whether he encountered a bird-hit, what was the wind speed and how the engine functioned at that moment," a DGCA official disclosed to IANS on condition of anonymity.
Admitting that the company was not in the business of chartering services to private parties, Sharma said the aircraft on that day was operated to fly Soundarya and the others to Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh on the request of the Hyderabad Flying Club.
The actress and her colleagues were on way to Karminagar to campaign for the BJP, which she joined at the behest of her brother Amarnath.
"Being flying academies, we (Agni and Hyderabad Flying Club) have an understanding to fly our aircraft for mutual requirements. Originally, only Soundarya was to board the aircraft and fly to the destination along with the pilot.
"But at the last minute, the other two passengers joined her. Since the aircraft is built to fly four people, including the pilot, we did not see any impropriety in conducting the service.
"In fact, we were told a day before the flight that Soundarya and her brother were actually booked to fly by a regular commercial service to Hyderabad but they had changed the plans, as its departure time did not suit their hectic campaign schedule," Sharma noted.
The Agni chief executive also claimed that the aircraft was inspected by its engineers and all its parameters were found to be in order. Its airworthiness certification, issued by the DGCA, was valid till June 2004. It also carried an insurance cover.
"Though we operate smaller aircraft and microlights to train rookie pilots, we have been confining to assembling aircraft and manufacturing aero components for the civilian and defence sectors over the last four years.
We discontinued our charter services after operating them between 1999-2001 since they became unviable and did not pay enough, though we had a licence from the DGCA as a private taxi operator," Sharma asserted.