When it rains, it pours. For the Indian Air Force (IAF), it’s been pouring misery for three months.
In yet another loss, a MiG-27 UPG ex-AFS Uttarlai near Barmer, Rajasthan crashed on 31st Mar 2019. This is the 9th loss of an aircraft this year that has already claimed nine air warriors. Of these, a MiG-21 Bison & a Mi-17 V5 were lost during the Indo-Pak air skirmish on 27th Feb 19. Rest are peacetime losses.
Every Service Has Its Downturns
Sometimes, a spate of accidents with no apparent correlation may occur in quick succession. There would be temptation to jump out of our chairs and scream blue murder. But that’s not how it works. Safety analysts pour through tons of database to arrive at important metrics such as accident rate per number of hours flown, cause classification, contributory factors etc before drawing conclusions. Such data may well lie outside the ambit of an average netizen today.
Not surprisingly, there are alarmist reactions on social media in the immediate aftermath of every accident today. The latest MiG-27 crash ignited another round of hysteria that media and Twitterati feasted on for a few hours. Then it was business as usual. This is election season and the pilot had bailed out safely. There must be stories with bigger news peg. What chance does a downed MiG-27 stand?
Is the Present Trend Really Something to Worry About?
In the absence of accident statistics in public media, only those who are ‘inside’ & ‘privy’ will know the real facts. I am not one of them anymore. One hopes that the situation doesn’t fall into a ‘those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind’ description.
The website theidioms.com describes “when it rains, it pours” to mean one of the following:
- to have a good or bad news enlarged by circumstances
- something good or bad occurring multiple times within a short span of time
- it is used when several issues come together
Let us examine recent crashes in that light.
Good or Bad News Enlarged by Circumstances?
There was a time when such crashes occupied a small corner in some tabloid or newspaper. Most read like an obituary. Even fatal crashes hardly drew public attention, unless it was some high-visibility event or claimed a large number of lives.
Today, there is social media and instant outrage. Sometimes, the story breaks on Twitter before it reaches an ‘Ops Room’. That sets off immediate, often hyperbolic debate, mud-slinging and trading of charges before even the fire trucks have pulled out. This has immense potential for magnifying minutiae irrelevant to the accident. It also has the power to (briefly) overwhelm giants or set off witch hunts. Often, such misdirected energy leads nowhere.
Remember, the 1st Feb 2019 crash of Sid & Sam’s Mirage 2000 at Bengaluru’s HAL Airport? Inept handling of public communication by HAL and IAF fuelled much speculation and spewed vitriol into public space. This was quickly milked by political opportunists.
Soon, it will fade from public memory. In due course, some report will be tabled, ‘giants’ who are guilty will escape while minions will get punished. The lid will be put back on the can of worms. That’s been the pattern for years.
What Should Change & At What Cost?
Can public outrage be taken as a ‘term of reference’ for accident investigation or corrective action? A purist would say no. Thankfully, so far that hasn’t been the case, at least in the services. But we all know the depravity of Nirbhaya case that sparked a nationwide movement which led to Justice Verma Commission and crucial reforms. To quote a report from The Quint, “the Committee’s huge 644-page report, which was published within a month, for once didn’t just end up gathering dust at the Law Ministry, but instead formed the basis of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, after first being implemented as an ordinance.”
In Aviation, Band Aid Fixes Don’t Work
Sadly, in aviation, knee-jerk reactions or ‘band-aid’ fixes don’t work. Recall Lion Air Flight 610 of 29th Oct 2018? It took Ethiopian Flight 302 and another 157 lives lost in Mar 2019 for bringing a global giant to heel? The worldwide outrage ultimately grounded the entire 737 MAX fleet, albeit at a huge cost of lives.
But can enduring solutions be rustled up under popping flashbulbs, a frothing media and people baying for blood? In evolving aviation ecosystems like ours, the temptation for such drama & resultant fixes can be overwhelming.
“Something good or bad occurring multiple times within a short span of time”
In aviation, something good is happening all the time. There’s a reason flying is the safest mode of transportation today. There are numerous systems and ‘system of systems’ ensuring every takeoff is followed by a safe landing. If all MiGs were ‘obsolete’, ‘outdated’ or ‘flying coffins’, it would be raining MiG debris instead of space debris from ASAT weapons. That’s hardly the case, though we may soon get there if policy paralysis prevails over modernisation.
Yet, safety is not the absence of accidents. Neither should it dull us into believing ‘all is well’ or ‘we know it all’. Remember the ‘Winged Stallions’ horrific midair collision of two naval IL-38s in Oct 2002. A flypast to celebrate 25 years of accident/incident free flying ended in a huge smouldering wreck outside INS Hansa, killing all aboard and few on ground.
Is There Room For Complacency?
When something bad occurs multiple times within a short span of time, there could be cause for concern. I think the IAF may be at that juncture today. Nine accidents with as many lives lost within three months calls for an operational pause. I sounded this caution soon after the Surya Kiran midair that killed Wg Cdr Sahil Gandhi. Three crashes have taken place since then. Basking in national limelight, goaded by a government hardening its stand, modernization still a far cry, is it possible that we have become complacent and cavalier in our approach?
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’. I quoted these lines after a MiG-29K crash at Goa. It’s deja vu again.
We as a nation may have taken this a step further. Through repeated catastrophic events, we seem to have developed an appetite for unacceptable practices & standards. Recall with what seriousness the IAF & MoD treated the 27th Feb 2019 crash of a Mi-17 V5 that now appears to be a case of fratricide? Led by pied pipers from media, misplaced nationalistic fervour and struggling PR mechanism of IAF, we walked up the garden path chanting ‘Abhinandan’ while six devastated families watched in horror.
Even now, there is a serious risk of drawing unequal comparisons and diluting the gross failure at various levels this accident points to. Comparison with US forces or Pakistan is sheer idiocy. The US has been fighting real battles all over the world 365/24/7. Pakistan is below par for any such comparison. We skirmish for two days, lose two aircraft, six crew, against a low-order adversary and still come out smelling of roses? What if it was China?
‘Normalization of deviance’ should not be developed into a fine art of ignoring glaring shortfalls, glossing over disasters of our own making, & then proceeding to join the public charade on streets.
For starters, how about releasing at least a preliminary statement about what happened to the Mi-17V5 on 27th Feb 2019? Why is ‘ziplip’ still in force? Is this ‘moral code of conduct’ for the fallen? Why are we still basking in glory from a MiG21 Bison-vs-F16 dogfight?
Several Issues Have Come Together
I believe, true to the idiom, several issues have conspired in recent years to land calamitous outcomes at the doorstep of our armed forces. Without belabouring the bureaucracy and civil-military faultlines, let’s look at some in-house issues.
First and foremost is the utter opacity of flight safety statistics of all three services to public scrutiny. Gigabytes of videos, photos, court of inquiry reports and such other evidence from air accidents lie buried in files and hard disks at service headquarters. Much of this data may implicate ‘giants’ – PSUs like HAL, DRDO, OFB etc. Even as aircrew die or get court martialled every year, can you recall even one case which saw one official from any other agency implicated, tried and charged with culpable homicide?
Maybe there’s reason for this. The service is full of ‘ayaram gayarams‘ (Johnny come latelys) while well-entrenched babus & managers inhabit corridors of power & PSUs. What’s worse, we have become so subservient and spineless that well-entrenched lobbies almost always outpace & outlast us. Politics & pseudo-nationalism have seized upper hand. Today, to speak a word against such agencies immediately ignites an ‘us versus them’ debate that obfuscates real issues with no prospects of long-term enhancement. In the resultant smokescreen, real culprits elude us. So does real change.
Get Serious Already. Own Up
Safety of aviation is rooted as much in honesty and integrity as it is in pure sciences. Eternal vigilance is the price of safety. Beware the temptation to fall for rhetoric and scream from rooftops. That achieves nothing except an election ticket. Also beware of shooting messengers & minions.
Please declassify and put in open domain all possible air accident reports. Shed the cloak & dagger approach.
Make our accident/incident statistics available for public scrutiny. I am afraid, there’s blood on everyone’s hands. Some are so deep into the red that even prison sentences may not suffice.
If secrecy or national security makes that impractical, at least have an impartial, bipartisan agency audit our accident statistics from time to time. These days, even CAG audits are not free from political manipulation. Even if they are above board, normalization of deviance & unabashed denial should not become the norm.
If any agency is found culpable, go the whole hog and press charges, just like you would on hapless crew in uniform. Heads must roll, even if that head sits in a Chairman / CEO office or in North or South Block.
After a series of accidents and safety lapses, Naval Chief Adm DK Joshi resigned in 2014. Though poignant, it changed nothing. Recently, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa quoted Bob Dylan’s epic ‘blowin’ in the wind‘. Well, the same song also has a line “how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”
Who should take accountability for the mess IAF finds itself in today? Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa? Or higher ups?
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Birdiethebird99 via his Instagram account.