“For want of a nail, the Kingdom was lost”
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 (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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.
Cover Photo from official Indian Navy website website www.indiannavy.nic.in.