The IAF’s recent run of ill luck hit a new low today 19th February 2019 when two Hawk AJTs from the Surya Kiran Aerobatics Team (SKAT) crashed at Yelahanka after a mid-air collision during rehearsal. It’s blue skies (RiP) for one of the pilots while two other pilots ejected safely, albeit with injuries.
A Mirage 2000 crash on 1st Feb at neighbouring HAL Airport claimed two young test pilots from ASTE. Soon after, a MiG 27 crashed on 12th Feb near Jaisalmer (pilot ejected safely). Now this fatal accident coming a day before inauguration of Aero India 2019 has thrown a long shadow over the proceedings.
February 2019 has been a terrible month for Indian forces battling many asymmetric threats from inside and outside.
Why Are Displays Conducted?
Flying displays at such air shows are conducted for either one of two reasons.
For the armed forces, it’s a recruitment tool. I know it because I have survived a near-death experience (of my own making) from one such impromptu aerial display (read here). What they don’t tell you is how many eventually get selected to fly, and how a miniscule number of them ever join Formation Aerobatics Teams (FAT). But that should not dissuade show aficionados from making a beeline for the show.
Second, it is a great PR-building / advertising opportunity for aerospace companies who want to sell their birds. At any airshow, the biggest draw is invariably the flying display. What they don’t tell you again is that nations seldom, if at all, buy aeroplanes today based on their display prowess at airshows.
Who Flies Such Displays?
Formation aerobatics or display flying is not for the faint hearted. A razor-sharp level of alertness, apex skill levels, astute planning, risk & hazard assessment, and a continuous process of ‘brief-fly-debrief-improve-perfect’ go hand in hand to create a successful performance. That SKAT, Sarang, Blue Angels, Red Arrows and many other display teams pull off hundreds of such shows annually bears testimony to their calibre. Most aircrew in such teams would be in their late 20s or early 30s, full of ‘josh’ and chutzpah. They are specially selected basis their skills, aptitude and attitude. No ‘chacha bathija‘ connection can get you in there (nepotism is ruled out).
Their collective safety depends as much on individual traits as their ability to let the ‘individual’ blend into the ‘collective’ when they autograph the skies.
Accidents Do Happen, Even to The Best
Even with top preparation, the odd accident will still happen, given the high stakes and wafer-thin margin for error. That’s a sobering reality crew playing with extreme combinations of speed, metal and mettle have to accept, though even such exigencies are planned to the T. We do not yet know what went wrong with this display. But rest assured, the SKAT and Sarang Helicopter Display Team are among the best in the world.
Sarang proudly abides by their claim ‘but for the rotors, we would have been closer’
A Sobering Reminder
I recall our air station INS Dega playing host to SKAT at Visakhapatnam way back in 1997 when they toured the East Coast. Their Leader gave us a detailed run down how each one of them have their eyes riveted on the leader or wingman to the total exclusion of everything else. We were newly married and my wife was enthralled by their performance. Over a social interaction Madhuri popped, rather innocently, the obvious question: “what if the leader makes a mistake and goes into the Simhachalam hill?” One of the junior members from the SKAT echelon piped up earnestly – his reply will give you goose pimples:
“Ma’am, then you will find eight holes on the side of the hill, perfectly spaced at formation distance”.
It was a fine, sunny day at Vizag and they had just completed a copybook display true to their reputation. Simhachalam hill nearby was safe & green. We shared a small laugh with the air warriors. Madhuri became their fanboy for ever.
Today 19th Feb 2019, nobody’s laughing.
Disaster Strikes If Not Watchful
I have been witness to more than a fair share of display accidents during my time in the blue overalls. The worst by far was the mid-air collision of two mighty Ilyushin-38s of the Indian Naval Air Squadron 315, also known as the ‘Winged Stallions’, on 1st Oct 2002. I lost many dear friends in that crash, including a coursemate ‘Unforgettable Dutta‘.
A hastily drawn plan to fly a 2-aircraft formation ended in the worst disaster in Indian Naval Aviation, claiming all 12 lives onboard the two IL-38s and many unsuspecting civilians on ground. The aviators’ family members were either eyewitness to the accident or were getting ready to join the fliers for a ‘Barakhana’ (Big Feast) to commemorate 25 years of accident/incident free flying. What the day returned was the exact nemesis of that pristine record. Almost every street inside the naval precinct in Goa had a grieving family that day. Grief hung like a thick blanket of smog over entire Dabolim for days.
Half-Begun is Not Well Done
The Indian Navy made a gingerly foray into formation aerobatics by vesting that task with INAS 551 – a Fleet Requirement Unit operating Kirans (HJT-16) that was already vested with other primary tasks in the twilight of their commission. A basic ground rule of FAT was violated in the process. FAT or display teams brook no distractions brought about by secondary tasks or mundane activities. Without the complete organisational backup, logistics and administrative support intrinsic to such hazardous activity, disaster raised its ugly head during ‘India Aviation’ air show near Secunderabad in Mar 2010.
One of the Kiran Mk 2 aircraft from navy’s Sagar Pawan FAT plunged into a built-up area off Begumpet Airport, killing two ace pilots whom I personally knew as Cdr SK Maurya and Lt Cdr Rahul Nair. It took the loss of two precious lives, shrill protests from sane quarters and aircraft obsolescence for the navy to disband Sagar Pawan till the full gamut of men, material and admin was in place. To date, it has not been revived. Not surprising, considering what real progress have we ever made in any of those areas.
No Room For Faulty Aircraft Either
I was also witness to Sarang Display Team’s accident during rehearsal for Aero India, Feb 2007. Wg Cdr Vikas Jetly and Sqn Ldr Priye Sharma paid with their lives for a design-devil in some rigid-rotor helicopters called Lateral Cyclic Control Saturation (read more here). In layman terms, it means that when a pilot does a ‘g’ loaded turn to the left on the Dhruv ALH, at certain corners of the flight envelope, the turn can tighten on its own even after full opposite control input to the right is applied. Recovery from this situation requires pilot to offload ‘g’ forces and reduce power, both of which can be fatal at low altitudes.
Since the manufacturer was HAL and the customer IAF/IA, both sides ‘settled’ for a ‘Control Saturation Warning Light’ (CSWS), instead of going in for the longer, more tenuous route of rotor-head redesign like Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) did on the ARH Tiger. Net result of this jugaad? Now you can see a red light before kissing the skies goodbye. A small example reflective of big decision quandaries often faced during aerospace R&D and our stamina for the long, hard road to quality. Two more Dhruvs sold to Ecuador crashed similarly leading to cancellation of the contract in 2015, driving another nail into the coffin called ‘overseas sale of Dhruv’.
Before I sign off on a really bad day for Aero India 2019, two quick points:
Firstly, please don’t reach any premature conclusions. Any number of reasons, ranging from the most basic to big ones like organisational failures lurking latent in the bylanes of the airshow, could have caused this accident. Whatever be the cause, we must dig deeper than flogging a dead horse called ‘pilot error’. That finding is always easy and lets the bigger fish escape culpability – like it did in the IL-38 midair collision.
Secondly, let not false bravado prevail over scientific and substantive inquiry into smallest details of the case. When the Sarang team led by my good friend, then Wg Cdr Shashank Mishra, took to the skies two days after losing Jetley and Priye Sharma from their team, they lived and breathed the artist’s motto ‘the show must go on’. Can you imagine the extreme duress and passion under which they would have flown such a loaded profile, with Priye dead and Jetley in coma? And what, in turn, has this nation paid back to their families?
I was one of the spectators who had misty eyes that day. Sadly, such nobility is lost on the wider community of decision makers in corridors of power & companies who have their eyes on bottom lines alone. It should not detract us from unearthing and then fixing the entire chain of events, including those who loaded the dice against these aerial performers.
Remember the long list of crew lost to display accidents. Should the show go on unchecked?
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. Cover photo from SnapsIndia via rediff.com