MiG 29K Crash at Goa – A Wake-up Call

“For want of a nail, the Kingdom was lost”

Benjamin Franklin

On 3rd Jan 2018, while the world was still pulling itself out of the new year hangover, a MiG29K fighter from Indian Navy’s elite ‘White Tiger’ Squadron INAS 300 overran Runway 08 at INS Hansa, Goa. The trainee pilot aborted takeoff and carried out a ‘quick exit’ from the stricken aircraft before it caught fire. No details on what caused him to reject take off (RTO) is yet available. That no lives were lost is fortuitous.

The accident, however, exposed many chinks in naval aviation’s armour, particularly concerning fighter operations. Let us run down that list.

Lack of an Arrester Barrier

Mind you, this was not the Coalition Task Force operating out of a desert in Afghanistan or Iraq but a premier fighter base of the Indian Navy that has been operating fighters for decades. Yet something as basic as an arrester barrier was conspicuous by its absence.

An Arrester Barrier (Pic courtesy www.uotila.com)

An arrester barrier (nets to catch the aircraft wings or landing gear), or some other decelerating device like the tail hook with arrester wires, is considered necessary by most militaries that operate modern fighter aircraft. It is a complex mechanical-hydraulic system that absorbs the energy of the rolling fighter and prevents it from overshooting the runway in case of an emergency during landing or takeoff. While a system comprising arrester wires is a must onboard an aircraft carrier for conventional, non-thrust vectoring fighters like the MiG29K, at shore airfields the arrestor barrier or wire trap has not been considered a ‘must have’ by the Indian Navy (IN) for strange reasons.

Past History of Arrester Barriers

INS Hansa – a fighter bastion for the longest time – did have an arrester barrier in the past. I can recall at least two cases of barrier engagement, one of them fatal (2005). Another was engaged in early 90s. Due to wear & tear and usage, these barriers were either rendered unserviceable or beyond economic repair. Successive fighter pilots from the IN have in the meantime ascended to the highest chairs in service, including that of the Naval Chief. Yet, India’s most potent and frontline naval airbase doesn’t have a compatible arresting gear to this day. It is a sad commentary on where our priorities lie.

GO / NO-GO Criteria

On the outside, the latest accident looks like a case of some critical unit malfunction on takeoff roll necessitating a reject. Unlike civil airliners that have mandated runway length requirements, RTO thresholds and rules that govern a RTO, military aircraft often operate in ‘grey areas’ where such luxuries are either not mandated, or circumvented under the pressure of ‘operational requirement’. The Navy’s inability to take executive decisions of GO/NO GO when it comes to matters concerning air safety stands exposed in the wake of this accident. Why do IAF fighter bases stop flying when the arrester barrier is unserviceable, while the IN has been flying fighters off Goa for the longest time with the arrester barrier  making  either a guest appearance, or not being there at all? How can there be such contrasting opinions on operating philosophy of two sister services in matters concerning safety?

Normalization of Deviance

Diane Vaughan, an American sociologist who spent her career studying organisations where deviations from rules and practices become the norm coined the term ‘Normalisation of Deviance’. An article in Flight Safety Australia quotes her definition of this syndrome as ‘the gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behaviour is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organisation’. Status of airfield facilities, safety and support services are routinely covered in daily morning briefings at air stations like INS Hansa. The naval airfield has been without a barrier for close to a decade. Yet nobody even blinked when ‘arrester barrier not available’ was flashed in the morning briefing on 3rd Jan 2018? INS Dega on the east coast is another naval airfield which operates fighters without any arresting arrangement. This has become the new normal.

Design Aspects of MiG29K

The technical reasons why a RTO was necessitated in this accident will be dealt with in detail by the Board of Inquiry constituted by the IN. It shouldn’t be hard to find reasons why an aircraft inducted after much fanfare by the IN has suffered huge losses in such a short time. A 2016 CAG Audit noted that over 46 RD33MK engines powering the twin-engine fighter have been withdrawn from service or rejected on account of design defects and/or deficiencies. The report also noted that the naval MiGs have seen over ten cases of single-engine landings in its short commissioned life in the naval squadron. The MiG29K has very low air intakes which are extremely sensitive to Foreign Object Damage (FOD). How many RD33MK engines have been withdrawn on account of FOD and how many more we stand to lose could be the subject of a separate study. This is India. We share our 45m wide runways with wide-bodied civil jets that can leave a runway dusty, dirty and FOD-ridden in their wake. This reality must’ve been lost on people who signed off the dotted line while inducting the white elephant that the Black Panther has become.

Runway Maintenance

The runway at INS Hansa was resurfaced in 2016 after almost 10 years. An ever-increasing surge in civil traffic (70-80 scheduled flights a day) coupled with high density, multiple-type military traffic puts excessive stress on the management and upkeep of airfield resources. An Airfield Maintenance Fund of a few lacs per annum is chewed up by the tall grass alone, leaving precious little for anything else. Goa is everybody’s favourite holiday destination. No Minister or Naval Chief worth his salt will allow the naval airfield to be closed for repairs or resurfacing while tourists are beating down the doors. Consequently, resurfacing work is usually undertaken through the night by the Military Engineering Service (MES) which hands out L1 contracts to people working under abominable conditions. It’s like changing the wheels on a moving car. What the resultant quality of work will be like is anybody’s guess.

Indigenisation Yes, But at What Cost?

Another elephant in the room is the indigenisation lobby that forestalls all procurement even if the system or equipment is required as of yesterday. Design and development of aircraft arrester barrier systems is cited as one of the core competencies of Aerial Delivery Research & Development Establishment, one of the DRDO’s laboratories. Yet after so many decades, no such indigenous system has been accepted through trials by the IAF. The IN’s case is dovetailed with the IAF and therefore stands stalled. IAF found relief in moving a separate case for portable arrester barriers citing expeditionary operations / detached bases. IN missed the bus on that one too. Not surprising, considering how we have been pussyfooting on the whole issue.

Cases that Become Pariahs Nobody Wants to Own Up

Our defence procurement process that involves a long-winded, self-defeating cycle of specifications, tenders, trials and L1 (lowest cost) selection doesn’t discriminate between fifth generation fighters and fire tenders. Many cases for specialist vehicles such as Crash Fire Tenders, Mechanical Runway Sweepers, Ambulances etc. that are vital to flying operations have meandered rudderless for years like derelicts in the corridors of MoD . These are small, low visibility cases which don’t add a shine on anybody’s ACR. But they involve every bit the same sweat and toil like the induction of, say, a multirole fighter. Cases are often rotated between officers, and continuity – so crucial to capital acquisition cases – is lost. It’s easy to get defeated even before you start. My guess is the arrester barrier case also went this way.

Skewed Focus on Safety

Unlike the IAF, the IN does not have a dedicated directorate for air safety. Flight Safety has largely been reduced to a passive, record-keeping task with no agency. In our scheme of things, operations often take priority over maintenance and safety. This is a navy-wide malaise that needs to be looked squarely in the eye. In an inexplicable move symptomatic of the skewed focus towards safety, two rather conflicting responsibilities of ‘air warfare’ and ‘flight safety’ were allotted to the same Principal Director (PD) in a restructuring of aviation directorates at IHQ MoD (Navy) in 2014. The new PD, anointed PDAWFS (Principal Director Air Warfare & Flight Safety), would have a decidedly tough task wearing the dual hats. It’s not hard to figure who will lose when safety and operations clash, which they often must. You don’t get promoted for stalling flying at an air station because the arrester barrier isn’t there.

A Mixed Bag of Aircraft

For many years, our navy has seen a mixed bag of Western and Eastern origin aircraft. Design and operating philosophies differ, as do support equipment like arresting gear. The Western-origin 11-ton Sea Harriers made way for 24-ton MiG29Ks. Nobody knows for sure which way the LCA (Navy) would go and what shape the IN’s future deck-based aircraft will take. A navy which has largely been buying aircraft from across the world has to choose support equipment carefully. It’s like the classic Helicopter Traversing System conundrum the IN has been struggling with for years. With no clarity on what shape the future MRH or NUH will take, and shipyards filling their order books regardless of aviation’s tardy progress, some solution will ultimately be chosen requiring future platforms to adapt. Compromises, like divorce settlements, can be expensive.

A Grim Reminder

Naval aviation requires unique solutions. We need to think long & wide, think smart, yet think local. A reorganisation of priorities is also in order. All rejected takeoffs may not have a happy ending like this one. I remember a strapping young Sea Harrier pilot Lt Cdr HPS Pannu who didn’t make it in a Dec 2005 crash. But that didn’t owe anything to decision paralysis at Headquarters. Maybe the MiG that crashed on 3rd Jan 2018 does.


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views are personal.

Cover Photo from official Indian Navy website website www.indiannavy.nic.in.

8 thoughts on “MiG 29K Crash at Goa – A Wake-up Call

  1. Great article. Guys, don’t shoot the messenger. Barriers are for fighters only not for transports/multis/or helicopters (sorry couldn’t resist that snipe). Unlike common perception, the ideal fighter pilot isn’t a devil may care redneck. If we can’t give Hansa a barrier why not a RHAG like all the IAF Jag bases? Didn’t we learn anything from the USN with all the pilots who trained there.

  2. Will try to be as politically correct as possible. Instead of creating a debate I would pose a few questions which are relevant with respect to the article.

    Is it possible to site arrester barriers (AB) at Hansa? What are its flight safety implications on civil traffic which has increased by 150%? Is a stand alone arrester barrier effective or does it require an SGA also? A stand alone arrester barrier did’nt prevent the fatal in 2005. (For the uninitiated, a stand alone AB is akin to a seat belt in a car. While it may be effective in a minor accident, the seat belt needs to be supplemented with air bags in the event of a major accident). Is there real estate available at Hansa for the SGA and ABs? While it has been projected that the service is myopic, let me assure you that cases have been progressed by the Navy for RHAGs not only for Hansa but also for IN airfields where the MiGs would operate. It takes time to fructify.

    Comparing two topics under one paragraph ‘IN RTO for fighter ops and IAF SOPs’ is akin to comparing a cardio doc to a dentist…its a pointless debate. Hansa is a DGCA designated International Airport. Does the IAF have an international airport from where it operates its fighters? Does’nt the IAF regularly operate fighters from Hansa?

    The statistics provided for damage to MiG engines is a stand alone figure. Can it be compared to the FOD engine stats of say the F 16 or the USMC / RN / RAF Harriers to give a more realistic picture?

    For the first time, the E in C Branch was involved with the resurfacing of the runway at Hansa. For the first time, all fixed wing squadrons, fighters and MR, were detached to IN and IAF bases during the resurfacing of the runway (yes we do adopt procedures from the IAF). Extensive coordination between the DGCA, Civil operators and the IN was conducted at the highest level to ensure resurfacing of the runway as per MilSpecs of the E in C Dte. The IN took a lot of flak, but the work progressed as per specs.

    Comments on Staff Branch at DNAS is best debated while in service rather than a blog. Every branch has its constraints and finds its way ahead, even at the cost of a hiccup or two.

    Analysis of an aircraft accident, its causes, its contributory factors and the actions by the aircrew is often misconstrued. One of the best examples to understand this statement is fortunately easily available courtesy Clint Eastwood’s ‘Sully’. In this particular case of 3 Jan, a youngster, stopped a very high perf fighter on the runway at Hansa … and walked away…kudos to the standards of training, safety services and all departments at Hansa for restoring civil flight ops within the shortest possible time.

    1. Harit, it’s 2018 and you are still asking basic questions about whether an arrester barrier or SGA is required for a fighter base? Many of us have played golf adjacent to the operational area in Hansa for years and you are talking about a possible space crunch? Where are our priorities?

      ‘Cases have been progressed’ is a politically-correct statement in the present continuous tense that we have been taking refuge under for far too long. If you, as a veteran of Goa, question the very necessity of AB, what hopes do we hold for a ‘case in progress’.
      It may be news to you but the IAF has been operating fighters (MiG29s, Su30MKIs etc.) from an international airport at Lohegaon with arrestor barrier for years. ABs are for fighters, not airliners or other category of aeroplanes. What flight safety implications are you talking about?

      I didn’t understand your ‘cardio doc versus dentist’ argument. Perhaps you could elaborate.

      IAF operates fighters from Hansa during joint/multilateral exercises where a conscious, joint decision to operate without barrier is taken because we don’t have a choice. It’s not the norm; neither should we deem it as such.
      The hardwork and toil that went into runway resurfacing is well appreciated. The MES works under the E-in-C, so that changes nothing in my understanding. Milspecs are germane to any aviation-related project. Let’s not make a virtue out of a necessity.

      Please treat my comments on procurement matters and functioning of avn dte as a personal opinion. If everything was hunky dory we wouldn’t be in the state that we find ourselves today. Out of formal/informal discussion and debates, and deep introspection perhaps some positive change will emerge. Of course, we can always do window dressing and pretend all is well. That’s not my style.
      Kudos to the youngster who pulled off a RTO against such daunting odds.
      Thanks for sharing your valuable feedback. I have a conscience which vents occasionally through my blogs. But, like you, I only have the best interests of our fine service at heart. Do stay in touch.

      1. KP, I agree with much of what you write above as well as about issues that you mention in the Seaking rescue during the cyclone. Abhijit Garud, the co-pilot and I were shipmates once when he did his Midshipman’s time with me sometime in 2008-09. Showed much spark even then.
        I feel that in our system there isn’t a very strong indigenisation “lobby” quite opposite to your observation. Everyone involved needs to show much more passion and persisitence in design, development and induction itself. This is not specific to arrester gear but in general as well. I wish there were ” lobbies”, actually.

        Second, perhaps we need to emphasise a culture of safety (even in road traffic as you poignantly brought out a few blogs earlier) that is deeply absorbed. This would reduce many accidents “On the beaches, in the hills, on landing strips…” like Churchill said) . At the same time, perhaps we need to occasionally distinguish between a culture of safety and a culture that subtly resists the pushing of risk envelopes that are necessary to the operational nature of military flying which requires us to train, train and train. A deep culture of safety will also, inevitably see the occasional accident.

        One of my professors at Newport, an attack aviator, Robert Rubel, at the US Naval War College in 2002-03 has compiled Newport Paper 41, “Writing to Think”, https://usnwc2.usnwc.edu/getattachment/c9139743-0da5-4000-aa01-629b7a159432/NP_41_Rubel-Web-(1).pdf that I link here. Chapter 7 is “The US Navy’s Transition to Jets”. Rec for aviation enthusiasts and all naval leaders. The accident statistics, the imperatives, the price paid in blood are revealing. Reiterates some of the points you and others make here.

        Talking about rescuing lives at sea. In early (Feb?) 1985, I was on middle watch in the Rajput, when I got a call from the doc that the NO had had a heart attack in his cabin. The NO managed to stagger into the PMO’s cabin, fortunately and collasped. We had already rounded Dondra to change base to Mumbai from VZ. I asked MCR to prepare the other three GTs even before reporting to the captain. He soon asked the flight cdr, the very competent LCDR (Late) Atul “Doc” Vaidya, a Ka-25 chap but we had a chetak on board then, when he could launch. The NO was in critical shape and needed to get into a hospital.

        Doc said that saving a life was important, so he said he would launch by 0400 and fly about 150 NM to Kochi which we were closing at 31 knots. He would be beyond radar anyway for quite some time. He told the old man, he was confident and that the risk to three- four more lives was worth it to save one. They launched with the NO and PMO and made it just in time for Sanjivani to deal with a second, even worse attack when the ambulance was just moving in from Garuda. The NO lived, of course, but would almost certainly not have, had the helo not been launched. Doc Vaidya was some character!! He advocated, with almost no support, to try and work out night dunks for the KA. He said, let us create some all- weather capability; submarines need to be pinged for even at night…! There may be differing views about this, even today, but was he wrong in pushing the envelope of military flying? I can’t say for sure, but you guys could think about it. The Russkies did not intend their missile boats to be towed either and then detached for attack…God bless him.

Tell me what you think of this story!