No Room for Compromise in Air Safety

While operating across the skies, it is quite normal for Airliners to encounter turbulence caused by rising columns of air which is a consequence of natural heating of the atmosphere

Issue: 05-2022By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Boeing

There is no doubt that air travel in India is reasonably safe and is regarded not only the fastest, but also the safest mode of travel in the country today. However, accidents or even minor incidents involving Indian carriers always attract considerable media attention. The most recent case of an Indian carrier being involved in an incident while on a scheduled flight with a total of 195 persons on board including members of the flying and cabin crew, was that of a Boeing 737 MAX held on the inventory of the Indian low cost carrier SpiceJet. The initial part of the SpiceJet flight that was operating from Mumbai to the Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport in Durgapur in West Bengal, was free of any problem. However, the aircraft encountered severe turbulence towards the end of its flight when it was in a descent to land at the destination. Based on the information on weather pattern available, the pilot in command had assessed the possibility of severe turbulence and had deviated towards the left of the flight path. Unfortunately, the pilot in command was not aware of the air pocket that caused the turbulence after deviating from the original track.

This episode was possibly a case of clear air turbulence which is very difficult for a pilot to detect. While a developing thunderstorm that would cause severe atmospheric turbulence can be detected by the radar mounted on the aircraft which can be seen by the pilot in command or by the ground based radar, there is no possibility of a pilot in command detecting the possibility of clear air turbulence visually or by weather radar mounted on the aircraft. Also, not all possibility of turbulence can be forecasted accurately by the department of meteorology. In this particular case, the turbulence was unusually violent and was so severe that it unfortunately resulted in injuries to a number of passengers on board. This incident took place on May 1 this year.

While operating across the skies, it is quite a normal phenomenon for Airliners to encounter turbulence that is caused by rising columns of air which is a consequence of natural heating of the atmosphere. While in most cases the atmospheric turbulence only results in minor bumps and jerks for the aircraft resulting in only minor discomfort for passengers on board. During instances of moderate turbulence, the pilot in command would not face any problem in maintaining control of the aircraft. However, in the case of severe turbulence, it could lead to abrupt changes in altitude and attitude of the airplane along with variations in airspeed of the aircraft. In the case of extreme turbulence, the aircraft can be tossed around violently and hence it could become extremely difficult if not impossible for the pilot in command to maintain control of the aircraft and retain stable flight conditions.

Turbulence caused by atmospheric instability can sometimes be so severe that it can create serious difficulties not only for the crew in handling the aircraft, but also a high level of discomfort for the passengers as well. In this particular case, the aircraft was so violently shaken and tossed around on account of the turbulence encountered that hand baggage stored in the shelves above the rows of seating on both sides of the aisle got dislodged and fell on the passengers. As per reports, at least 17 persons including 14 passengers and three cabin crew members were injured in the incident. In some cases, the injuries were severe in nature. The pilot in command of the aircraft had cautioned the passengers of the possibility of severe turbulence and had instructed all to fasten their seat belts. Most passengers normally unfasten their seat belts during flight till such time the aircraft commences its descent for landing which was so in this case. With the exception of a few, most passengers in all likelihood, would have responded to the instructions by the pilot in command of the aircraft and would have fastened their seat belts. Most of the injuries sustained by passengers were on account of hand baggage falling on their heads. It is also possible that some careless passengers may have been indifferent to the instructions by the pilot in command and had neglected to fasten their seat belts. These passengers would have been tossed around violently resulting in more serious injuries. One of the 14 passengers hospitalised on account of injuries sustained did have severe spinal injury. The turbulence was so severe that in some cases, even the seat belt tore off resulting in the passenger being tossed around and sustaining severe injuries.

An extremely important consideration in the airline industry is the quality and level of professionalism displayed by the air crew operating the aircraft in their response to an emergency. Two days after the episode in question, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board took over the responsibility to probe into the episode primarily to assess the professional quality of response of the crew to the emergency. In the final analysis, there is absolutely no room for any compromise in air safety in the civil aviation industry.