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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Feb 10, 2019, 7:34 AM; last updated: Feb 10, 2019, 7:55 AM (IST)

Every air crash is one too many

Military aviation is challenging. Any holes in air safety must be plugged immediately to prevent loss of invaluable lives as well as aircraft

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd)

The recent Mirage crash at Bengaluru where the Indian Air Force (IAF), and the nation, lost two young test pilots brought to the fore the issue of the flight safety record of our Air Force. Lost in the din and clamour are facts and the reasons behind the mishaps; also overlooked are the steps that the IAF has been taking to prevent accidents. One needs to disperse the fog on this issue that has attracted public attention — and rightly so.

The 41st report of the Standing Committee on Defence of the Lok Sabha issued last year brought out the fact that there were 65 accidents during  the 11th Plan period (April 1, 2007-March 31,  2012); this accounts for an average of 13 accidents per year. The same report stated that in the first four years of the 12th Plan (April 1, 2012-March 31, 2016), there were 28 accidents; thus, the yearly average reduced to seven accidents per year. These are mere statistics that one can draw solace from, as the numbers have reduced; however, every accident averted is a valuable aircraft saved and, in some cases, an invaluable life not lost.

Of the figures quoted above for the 11th Plan period, 29 accidents were due to technical defect and 27 due to human error (aircrew); the two together thus constitute 86 per cent of the losses — a very high percentage. Additionally, there were three accidents attributed to human error (servicing) and two to human error (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited). In the 12th Plan period too, the percentages work out to almost similar figures — any accident is one too many and it is important to analyse the causes of mishaps.

Accidents do not happen out of the blue. The most popular explanation of their occurrence is by the ‘Swiss cheese’ model put forth by Prof James Reason of the University of Manchester. It theorises that a single event or cause does not cause a mishap but is a culmination of a combination of failures, called the ‘cumulative act effect.’ Using the cheese-slice model, it postulates that the aligning of one hole in each of the four (cheese) layers, — organisational, supervision (or training), unsafe condition (say bad weather) and unsafe action — is necessary for an accident to take place. It is this alignment of holes (the holes represent flaws of a particular layer) that has to be prevented to avoid accidents; if four holes do not align, an accident will not take place. Let us analyse how these four layers are being individually addressed by the IAF to bring down the accident rate.

The first layer comprises organisational factors. The IAF has an organisational ‘climate’ where priority is accorded to ensuring a professionally optimum status among the operators on the flight line (pilots and technicians), who are the cutting edge of the force. However, it is also incumbent on the government that the required quality and quantity of equipment is made available to them. This translates to timely execution of contracts and provisioning of items at the field operator’s level. Has this been happening as desired? 

Media reports indicate that many maintenance contracts have overshot timelines, resulting in a shortage of spares. This is not a healthy situation as it results in cannibalisation (shifting) of parts from one aircraft to another to get the required number of serviceable aircraft on the flight line. Frequent cannibalisation is best avoided and is an area that deserves immediate redressal as it adversely affects flight safety. The other organisational factors that influence the equanimity of mind, so vital in the field of military aviation — housing, pay and allowances, schooling et al — is a work in continuum and needs to be continuously monitored and updated.

Supervision or training constitutes the second layer; this has been revamped with introduction of modern training aids and equipment. After the HAL-built HPT-32 basic trainer was grounded in 2009 post a spate of engine failures, the PC-3 Pilatus trainer was inducted. This has revolutionised the training pattern of ab initio trainees, who now get introduced to a modern glass cockpit and advanced avionics at the basic stage itself. 

However, the next step for a trainee should be an intermediate jet trainer (IJT), which unfortunately is a void due to the failure of the HAL Sitara IJT project. Hence, pilots make do with flying the old HJT-16 Kiran and then move on to the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer. The introduction of flight simulators of the Pilatus and Hawk have enabled cadets to be exposed to the handling of critical emergencies resulting in a drastic reduction of accidents at the ab initio training stage. Media reports of a decrease in the serviceability state of Pilatus due to delayed maintenance contracts, and non-availability of spares, is not good news as it could adversely impact this particular ‘Swiss cheese slice.’  

The third ‘slice’ is prevalence of an ‘unsafe condition;’ an example is of marginal weather or say a non-optimum state of availability of ground aids, in which a go or no-go decision for flying has to be taken. On any given day, IAF assets are flying in difficult environments, from the high-altitude Leh sector to the humid and hot plains down South and the deserts of Rajasthan to the wet hills of the North-East. Training and experience comes in handy through positioning of experienced flying supervisors who take a balanced call between the requirement of conducting missions and the gravity of a prevalent ‘unsafe condition.’ Some accidents have taken place due non-judicious decision making by either supervisors or aircrew themselves; learning from such mishaps is part of IAF’s organisational culture. 

Even if three holes of the first three slices align, the alignment/non-alignment of a hole in the fourth slice would be the difference between a safe flight and an accident. The actions of the field operator, whether an aircrew or a technician, thus assume vital importance. There is no margin for error at this level. The technician’s expertise at servicing the aircraft cannot be found wanting in any way just as an aircrew has to be qualified and adept at the tasked mission. The IAF has inducted modern aids to train technicians — see-through cut-outs, computer-based working models and rigorous on the job training are basics at all training schools. 

Similarly, aircrew go through a well-structured ground and flying syllabus to hone their skills; the procurement of flying simulators is part of the drive to subject them to all emergencies that they could face in the air. But, as statistics show, there is still a large gap that needs to be bridged in this area; accidents due to human error still constitute a substantive number of mishaps.

So, in the short term, the remedial measures require the government to hasten maintenance contracts to ensure availability of spares in the required numbers. Technical defects must be avoided through rigorous quality control by the manufacturers — HAL for a majority of the IAF fleet. For the long term, new capital inductions (especially fighter aircraft) must be speeded up so that the trend of giving extensions to aircraft beyond their programmed life is avoided; unfortunately, this has become the norm due to delayed acquisition programmes. The IAF needs to stay focussed, and improve, the training of front line operators so that the human element in aircraft accidents is minimised, if not eliminated. 

Flying is a demanding profession; military aviation is even more challenging as aircrew have to train in peace — in conditions that they would face in war. This is not an excuse for the accidents that one has witnessed but just acceptance of a reality that a nil accident rate is utopian; however, it would be bordering on the criminal if one does not try to achieve it. The government, HAL and the IAF have their task cut-out.

Fighter inventory

  • MiG-21: 6 squadrons
  • MiG-27: 2 squadrons
  • MiG-29: 3 squadrons
  • Jaguar: 6 squadrons
  • Mirage-2000: 3 squadrons
  • Sukhoi-30: 11 squadrons 
  • 3 more Sukhoi squadrons will be formed as aircraft-on-order come in
  • One squadron of Tejas is under raising, but not yet operational 
  • Two squadrons will be equipped with the Rafale
Core strength

  • Based upon threat, the IAF is authorised 42 fighter squadrons.
  • Presently, the number of operational squadrons is 31.
  • The maximum strength of the IAF has been 39.5 squadrons.
  • The strength will fall to 26 squadrons if more planes are retired.
— The writer is Additional Director-General, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi

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