Racism in the sky

Published: June 1, 2010 - 13:40 Updated: June 1, 2010 - 13:41

Some days ago, my flight took off in the night from the Kolkata airport. It was a usual, predictable, steady take off, with all the perfunctory announcements metallically billowing out of the public address system. A little later, I sensed that the aircraft had taken a huge loop and was landing again. For experienced fliers, too, it was an unusual moment. The crew refused to explain this strange turnaround to the agitated passengers, but before their anger could spin out of control, the flight was ready to take off again. As it was close to midnight and many of us were sleepy, the curiosity about the circumstances of this bizarre incident began to wane as the flight stabilised and went on a cruise mode. There were no explanations after landing, too, as to why the aircraft changed its plans. 

Such a decision, invariably, is a recipe for crashes and catastrophes. The recent crash at Mangalore, which left 158 dead, brought to the fore limitations under which the pilot operates when he is sitting in the cockpit. Till the black box or flight data recorder is decoded, it would be difficult to state why a relatively new aircraft crashed on a table-top airfield at Mangalore. Reports indicate that the pilot was experienced and had landed about 20-odd times at the Mangalore airport, which has a runway big enough to handle both Boeing and Airbus. However, the moot question is, why did the pilot fail to touch down at the designated point on the airfield?

For such an experienced hand, it should have been a cinch to land on such an airfield, but it seems that there was a mismatch between the time and the altitude at which he chose to land and what was delivered by the computers of the aircraft. If one looks at media reports, then even before the enquiry commission can find the real reason behind the crash, the judgment has already been announced: the accident was due to the pilot's error. 

In most crashes, pilots are held guilty. After all, they are the most dispensable in this colossally expensive aviation value chain. Only in a few cases do the aircraft manufacturers own up that there is something wrong with their systems. If one looks at statistics, then it becomes clear that 90 per cent of the time the pilot is held responsible for these mishaps. Rest of the crashes are attributed to air pockets or some other mysterious reason. For example, the reasons behind the mysterious accident of an Air France aircraft near Brazil over the Atlantic are still not known, but no one would trash the airline or the make of the aircraft.

In the aircraft industry a certain kind of racism or class system works. If the crash takes place in India, then the entire system of oversight (read DGCA) and quality of airports would be brought to question. Foreign aviation experts have been quick to hint at inadequate safety systems in India. They do not bother to raise these questions when they have to sell their aircrafts to India, which, due to its phenomenal growth in traffic, is helping them come out of the red. 

A similar racism was visible when a Saudi Airline Boeing bizarrely crashed mid-air with a Russian-made Illushin aircraft. Within no time of the crash over Charkhi-Dadri in western UP, the inability of the Kazakh pilot to understand English and the generally poor quality of the Russian aircraft flown by Kazakh airline were held responsible for the fatal mid-air crash. Although the commission of enquiry, too, upheld some of these allegations, there was a general impression that Kazakh and Illushin were done in as they were not as powerful as Boeing and Saudi Airline. In other words, they were shown up as unedifying amateurs who should not have been in the sky in the first place.

The only time an aircraft manufacturer was read the riot act was after the Valentine Day crash in 1990 in Bangalore. Airbus had supplied fly-by-wire A-320 aircrafts to Indian Airlines amidst allegations of kickbacks to the Rajiv Gandhi government. Within a few months of buying them, one of these fancy flying machines crashed. The blame went to the aircraft, but this time the decision was politically motivated as it fitted in with VP Singh's campaign to show up the Rajiv Gandhi government as a recipient of kickbacks in the aircraft deal. Airbus was grounded for more than six months and that bled the airline to such an extent that it is still in bad shape. One hopes that this time around, the enquiry into the Mangalore crash produces nothing but the totality of unvarnished truth.

Editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and author of Bad Money Bad Politics- the untold story of Hawala scandal.

Read more stories by Sanjay Kapoor

This story is from print issue of HardNews