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

Tech succour for ailing fleet

Aircraft maintenance has been an issue with the IAF for long. However, it has been striving to better its safety record with new measures
Tech succour for ailing fleet
Man continues to be the weak link in the man-machine dynamics

Vijay Mohan in Chandigarh

Accidents in the Indian Air Force (IAF) are a cause of concern because these do not just involve material loss to the exchequer, but also result in an irreparable loss of human lives. While the accident rate has dropped significantly over the past couple of decades (see box), training, maintenance and safety issues continue to remain a cause of concern. The IAF is flying through turbulent headwinds, with its squadron strength depleting alarmingly on account of obsolesce of aircraft and fresh acquisitions mired in delays and controversies. Its mixed fleet of ageing and modern aircraft has been involved in accidents.

Flying is an extremely demanding and a highly complex task, more so when training for combat. A number of factors on the tarmac, as well as in the cockpit, impact efficiency. Majority of accidents are attributed to human error followed by technical defect. Bird strikes, weather and environmental factors account for a small percentage too.

An analysis of fatal accidents attributed to human error published in the Indian Journal of Aerospace Medicine some time ago stated that human error causes more than half of all aviation accidents. This includes incorrect decisions, lack of situational awareness, poor skills, supervisory inadequacies and fatigue. Pointing out that man continues to be a weak link in the man-machine dynamics, the paper suggested that better selection, training and good supervision could definitely reduce pilot error.

Yet another study — Accident Proneness of Pilots in the Indian Air Force — said Air Force Selection Boards adopt comprehensive tests to ascertain the suitability of aspiring candidates for flying based on intelligence, aptitude and personality variables. However, mishaps still occur. Of the 615 IAF pilots involved in the study, half had “clean” records, while the other half had been involved in accidents. The study analysed the performance of these two groups on the basis of intelligence, pilot aptitude battery (PAB) and personality. The study found that both the groups differed significantly on PAB tests and concluded that individuals scoring high on PAB would fly safely whereas the relatively low scorers have more probability of being involved in accidents.

In January this year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Defence revealed that the existing strength of the IAF’s trainer aircraft fleet is 310 against the sanctioned strength of 432. The IAF has a requirement of 183 basic trainer aircraft (BTA). At present, it has 75 Swiss-made PC-7 Mk-II, with a case for buying another 38 aircraft underway. Seventy BTA are to be manufactured by HAL.

As far as the intermediate jet trainer (IJT) is concerned, the role is being fulfilled by HAL-made Kiran, which is to be replaced by the IJT, also by HAL. The committee noted that HAL’s BTA, the HTT-40, has not obtained certification even two years after first flight of the prototype in 2016. The committee observed that theHAL’s IJT project was sanctioned in 1999. A contract was signed for delivering 12 limited series production aircraft in 2005 and 73 series production aircraft in 2010. However, the company is yet to complete IJT’s design and development.

The committee was “perturbed” that owing to the non-availability of the IJT, the IAF had to modify its training programme to a “two aircraft type flying training pattern” instead of the normally followed “three aircraft type flying training pattern”, progressing from the BTA to the IJT and then to the advance jet trainer. The IAF has now reportedly reverted to the three-aircraft pattern.

A few days ago, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, came down heavily on HAL and said the IAF’s association with HAL had compromised its fighting capability. Inordinate delays in development, time and cost overruns in fleet upgrade works and quality issues are among reasons cited for the IAF’s unhappiness. Though HAL, as a public sector entity, faces a myriad of problems that most state-owned companies suffer — political interference, bureaucratic inertia, mismanagement of resources, job reservations and corruption, it has produced some success stories also.

Aircraft maintenance has been an issue with the IAF for many years now. However, it has been striving to better its safety record. Parliament was told recently that the flight safety organisation has been revamped and executive independence of the flight safety branch has been ensured at all levels by placing the functionaries directly under the commanders. A pool of officers with specialised training in accident investigation is being maintained at Air HQ and all serious accidents are investigated by them.

The training methodology of aircrew and technicians has also been reviewed. Stage-wise training of pilots has been implemented for enhancing the quality of training and emphasis has been laid on effective training of technicians in Technical Type Training Schools. Simulators are now mandatorily procured for all new aircraft inductions. Training on high-performance human centrifuge and disorientation simulators for all operational aircrew and flight cadets has resulted in a marked reduction in certain types of accidents.

Concepts like Operational Risk Management and Crew Resource Management are being followed to integrate safety aspects into operations. Accident Probability Factor Calculator, a software-based tool, is being utilised to identify risks and hazards, specific to the aircraft fleet and operational environment at airbases and work out an accident-prevention strategy at each base. Further, a Human Factors Analysis and Classification System has been introduced to identify the root cause of human error and use it to prevent accidents.


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