Do Not Just Blame The Pilot

In the recent case, holding the pilot responsible for the disaster would be highly inappropriate as it would divert the focus from more important issues related to aviation safety ecosystem

Issue: 8 / 2020By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Hardeep Singh Puri / Twitter

The media was recently abuzz with reports on the crash of Air India Express Boeing 737 on August 7, 2020 while landing at the Calicut International Airport. The airliner was on a Vande Bharat Mission for the repatriation of Indian citizens stranded in the Middle East since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Air India Express flight took off from Dubai and was to land at Calicut International Airport at around 1940 hours. Unfortunately, for some reasons, things went horribly wrong as the aircraft overshot the runway while landing and fell into a gorge 35 feet deep. The fuselage of the aircraft broke up into two pieces, but fortunately did not catch fire. The pilot in command Deepak Vasant Sathe, the co-pilot Akhilesh Kumar, four members of the cabin crew and 14 passengers perished in the accident. Apart from these fatalities, over 100 passengers sustained serious injuries.

An accident involving an airliner that carries a large number of passengers on board, is a high profile event and is bound to attract national attention. And so has it been the case with the recent accident at Calicut International Airport. In an accident of this kind, the pilot in command becomes the primary focus of not only the investigating agency, but even for the public at large. This is primarily because it is the pilot in command who is on the controls, has to handle the aircraft both in normal operations as well as in emergency situation and is required to take all critical decisions. He may even ignore advice from the Air Traffic Control if he considers it inappropriate or not in the interest of flight safety which ought to be and generally is the primary focus of the pilot in command.

Every accident in the domain of the Indian civil aviation industry is investigated by the designated authorities to determine the factors that led to it, pinpoint responsibility for failures if any and recommend immediate remedial action as well long term measures to obviate the possibility of recurrence of such an event in the future. What is rather disturbing in this crash of Air India Express Boeing 737 is that even before the investigation had commenced, some senior functionaries related to Indian civil aviation made statements implying failure on the part of the pilot in command.

In this particular case, the pilot in command who had an immaculate professional track record, was confronted with adverse and extremely challenging situation. The prevailing weather with heavy rain, low clouds, poor visibility, strong and gusty winds posed a serious problem. The captain of the aircraft did make an instrument approach on runway 28 which was the Westerly runway that offered the advantage of strong head wind that would reduce the ground speed at the time of touchdown. Also, runway 28 provided a landing run that was up slope in which the far end of the runway was higher than the touchdown end by 30 feet. However, for some reason that hopefully will be ascertained by the investigating authority, the pilot had to abandon the approach for runway 28 despite the fact that it offered distinct advantages listed above. A reasonable guess would be that as the approach path for runway 28 lay over hilly terrain and with the existing low clouds, heavy rain and poor visibility, the pilot was possibly apprehensive of flying into the hills on the approach path. He therefore abandoned the approach for runway 28 as in all probability, he regarded it as unsafe and opted to land from the opposite direction on runway 10 where there were no hill features on the approach path. However, there were disadvantages in this option as the aircraft would experience strong tail wind thus increasing the touchdown speed that would result in longer landing run. To add to this, runway 10 had a down slope that would make it more difficult to stop the aircraft. Besides, the runway was waterlogged which degraded the efficiency of the braking system. The pilot in command was clearly battling against a host adversities.

Generally, there are multiple factors behind every major flying accident. In this particular case, the civil aviation authorities may assign the responsibility for the disaster at Calicut to lack of professional skill on the part of the pilot in command. They are also unlikely to highlight the failures on the part of the Air Traffic Control if any, in rendering appropriate advice to the pilot. But what is more disturbing is that the civil aviation authorities have failed to address the deficiencies and problems with regard to the table top runway at Calicut that had serious flight safety implications. These were pointed out by civil aviation specialist after the crash of Air India Express Boeing 737 while landing on the similar table top runway at Mangaluru airport a decade ago.

In the recent case, holding the pilot in command responsible for the disaster would be highly inappropriate as it would divert the focus from more important issues related to aviation safety ecosystem as also dent the morale of the flying community in India.