A small, 26-year old King Air C90 charter aircraft (VT-UPZ) undertaking a test flight crashed on 28 Jun 18 near Ghatkopar, Mumbai, while on a circling approach to land at Juhu airport. The crash killed all four crew members onboard the aircraft and one person on the ground. Considering the circumstances of the crash, it is easy to get diverted from the real issues and go chasing the obvious.
News and social media from all over the country were quick to jump to ‘lack of airworthiness certificate’ and ‘bigger tragedy was averted’ conclusions since the aircraft crashed into open area near an under-construction site while on a test flight. The narrative is ripe for missing the wood for the trees again.
The area around Juhu and the crash site is Mumbai’s glitzy skyline, with skyscrapers and rising terrain towards east and northeast. All operations from Juhu are undertaken under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) or ‘Special VFR’ (when visibility is less than 5 kms). Living under the shadow of big brother Santacruz’s Mumbai International Airport puts operations from Juhu airport under severe constraints – a height restriction of not more than 500/700 feet till 15 miles & not more than 1500 feet between 15 to 25 miles being one of them. Many hills, terrace gardens and towers in the vicinity rise higher.
It’s all fine and dandy till weather turns foul. When monsoon arrives, the slender gap between terraces and cloud ceiling narrows down, till it is closed completely; something I hope doesn’t remain ‘invisible’ in this investigation. Weather was typical monsoon yesterday when the crash took place, with low clouds and passing showers.
It is so easy to say the flight shouldn’t have taken place in such weather. But such ‘normalization of deviance‘ has become par for the course at Mumbai & Juhu, given the realities of ground situation.
It is a simple math that the authorities who are responsible for ensuring safe skies have repeatedly chosen to ignore. Instead, all they end up doing is throwing more regulations at the problem and tightening the stranglehold. When that happens, small operators and general aviation (GA) are the hardest hit.
Aircraft can eat your balance sheet for breakfast when they sit on the ground. The turbines and rotors have to churn if people have to earn their salaries and go home to happy families. It is agencies such as MoCA, AAI and DGCA who must enable this basic human need. But while Santacruz’s CSI Airport with its world-record-beating statistics of single runway operations hogs the limelight, small operators, helicopters and GA aircraft using Juhu as their home routinely get the rough end of the stick and weather.
World over, aircraft and helicopters switch on their transponders while approaching terminal areas with dense air traffic. For Juhu, they do the exact opposite: turning off their transponders and going invisible as they approach within 15 miles of Mumbai. Mumbai radar spews out 90-words a minute instructions to commercial flights while vulnerable Juhu traffic – mandated to contact Mumbai Radar while departing or arriving Mumbai – wait for that interminable millisecond to punch in their radio call.
Aircraft that fly have to undertake routine maintenance and defect repairs. Some of them may even need test flights. The profile for such flights could involve climbing more than rooftop heights – say, to check engine performance or assess the helicopter’s vibrations or autorotative characteristics. If you hem them in with saturated CSI Airport, rising terrain and skyscrapers on one side and descending cloud ceiling on the other, where is the room for even a small error of man or machine? This is not rocket science, but operators’ desire to earn a honest day’s revenue and the regulators’ Nelson eye have connived to create recipes for such disasters in and around Juhu.
All this happens every single day and we call this ‘tragedy averted’?!
An investigation is on. One hopes that all such associated aspects will be delved into before having a premature ejaculation of ‘technical failure’, ‘lack of certificate of airworthiness’ or the all-too-common ‘human error’.
Hope many issues I have highlighted (like numerous others before me have too) in an earlier story do not raise their ugly head in this crash either. I had signed off with a grim caution that some rainy day, the holes in Swiss Cheese will align. I do not wish to be proven right. But i fear that till the debris starts raining on ministers’ and regulators’ heads, such perilous encounters will continue.
I wish it wouldn’t. To make a living many of us have to fly. Please enable that with more proactive measures like improving matters at Juhu (IFR departures/arrivals, use of transponder, ADS-B, removal of height restrictions, designated airspace for test flights etc).
That should be the focus of ministers and lawmakers at this point of time. Simply beating down the crash site with news cameras and officials in tow is damaging both the vital clues that remain buried under the debris, and the faith of operators that anything may change for better.
(An edited version of this article was carried by The Quint on 29 Jun 18. You can read it here).
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. Cover photo from open media, source unknown.
Views expressed are personal and written with a view to contribute to aviation safety. Feel free to debate and contribute to the discourse. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.