In a terrible tragedy, Air India Express Flight IX-1344 from Dubai to Calicut experienced a runway excursion and crashed after landing at about 1941h IST on 7 Aug 2020. As per official reports, 18 of the 190 onboard, including both pilots, perished in the crash while over 120 have sustained injuries. This is India’s worst passenger aircraft accident since 2010, when another Air India Express flight from Dubai overshot the runway at Mangalore and slid down a hill, killing 158 people.
Air India has been at the forefront of repatriation flights launched by the Indian government under ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. These flights are a matter of pride — it is part of a national mission to get every Indian home. Every airline would like to fly them. But for unknown reasons, there are nominations in favour of the national carrier Air India and its offspring Air India Express.
Airlines facing multiple crises
These are unprecedented times for aviation. Airlines are grappling with a collapse in demand (70-80%), lockdowns, quarantine requirements, and a general fear of infection. Business and leisure travel is all but dead. All airlines have either laid off employees en masse or instituted deep pay cuts. Against this backdrop, airline crew, particularly from Air India, have been spearheading the repatriation flights.
With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging unabated, 2020 is clearly one of the worst years for aviation globally. There have been two major commercial airline crashes in South Asia region after the lockdowns lifted. The Air India Express IX-1344 crash comes a little over two and half months after Pakistan International Airlines flight PK-8303 from Lahore to Karachi, an Airbus A320, crashed near Karachi airport at about 1439 hours on May 22, 2020. Weather was reportedly not a factor in PK-8303 crash.
Never jump to conclusions in aviation
In the wake of PK-8303 crash, there were many premature conjectures on “why” and “how”. Many irresponsible comments were made. India really doesn’t need to emulate our western neighbour in matters aviation. Yet, we persist. India — as a responsible member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and one of the leading economies of the world — should be the regional benchmark for aviation safety and efficiency. But the latest crash exposes how far we are from that milestone, given the kind of organisation and systems we have in place for civil aviation.
In the immediate aftermath of any air accident, there will be shock, curiosity and a demand for answers. Globally, it is considered poor form, if not entirely inappropriate and unethical, to pass judgement on any accident till the facts are established through a scientific inquiry. For example, in the United States, only an authorised member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will make any public comment, a very limited one, or none at all, in the difficult moments / days following a crash. This is the norm worldwide.
But in India, “sources”, “aviation experts”, bureaucrats, and even ill-informed ministers start singing like a canary hours after any accident. An insensitive and TRP-hungry media enters this feeding frenzy. All kinds of experts crawl out of the woodwork and start waxing eloquent. Speculation runs riot. Ideally, Accountable Managers, CEO of the airline and authorised persons from civil aviation authority should give out calibrated information that allows the investigation to proceed without bias. In the absence of such mechanisms, conspiracy theories flourish and people hook on to “here’s what happened” channels on social media today.
Air accident investigation system of India
India really has no equivalent of the NTSB. There is the Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) under Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA). Four days to the accident and we are yet to hear from them. A casual google search for the AAIB website returns an “unsafe” callout. Their website is not even “https” or “safe”. This is the organisation that delves into air accidents in India and makes recommendations to prevent recurrence. Their reports read worse than a middle school assignment. Can any Indian recall a single AAIB member who made significant contributions to flight safety at national or international level? What must be the span and depth of our accident investigation system that does not make a single meaningful contribution to the cause of aviation safety? Who are the experts this system chooses?
Investigation derailed by inappropriate comments
All air accident reports in India carry this foreword (excerpted from a recent crash report):
“The investigation is conducted not to apportion blame or to assess individual or collective responsibility. The sole objective is to draw lessons from this accident which may help in preventing such accidents in future.”
Yet, even before the Combined Voice and Flight Data Recorder (CVFDR) was decoded, or grieving families handed over the bodies, both pilots (dead) were put in the dock by none other than the prima donna of DGCA — Mr. Arun Kumar, the DG himself. This is shambolic and doesn’t happen in any self-respecting aviation country.
Avoiding speculation is fundamental to every accident investigation. It is also legal and binding, especially on agencies like DGCA and AAIB who are vested with the responsibility of ensuring compliance to international conventions and agreements such as ICAO Annex 13 (blatantly breached in the DG’s premature statements to media). During a site visit after the IX-1344 crash, Indian aviation minister Mr. Hardeep Puri specifically requested people not to speculate. Yet, his key functionary, the DGCA himself, fielding leading questions from an equally culpable, sensation-seeking media, was led by the nose into areas he is meant to protect from ambulance chasers.
“It looks like a bad judgment call by the pilot”, DG of civil aviation Mr. Arun Kumar said in the TV interview to CNN News18 (watch an excerpt of the interview here). He harped on the point that the aircraft made a late touchdown. For an instrument runway like Calicut that’s longer than 2400 metres, the touchdown zone extends to 3000 feet (6 sets of TDZ markings spaced 500 ft apart). Touching down 3000 ft down a 9000 ft runway, even under the reported tailwinds, need not result in runway excursion. There will be a host of other factors that are yet to be investigated.
As the DG, Arun Kumar surely has access to much more data than ‘WhatsApp University’. Even so, what the interview calls ‘preliminary assessment’ is at best ‘raw data’: it is not processed, analysed or examined by any authorised agency as per accident investigation protocols. Such premature conjecture derails further process and makes us look like a banana republic in the eyes of international aviation agencies.
Accidents happen when multiple ‘holes’ align
Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) flight plans — standard for flights like IX-1344 — cater for two approaches before a mandatory diversion, a missed approach at primary diversion, and, if required, a flight to secondary diversion, a missed approach there and then some. There are visibility, runway visual range (RVR, equipment for which is not available at Calicut airport), technical distances and tailwind limits laid down for airfields and specific type of aircraft. The DG’s irresponsible statement steered clear of all this and chose to apportion blame on “bad judgment” on part of the crew. This goes against every tenet of ICAO Annex 13 and accident investigation.
Flight crew spend hours in the box (simulator) and in air, training for the kind of situation that obtained at Calicut during landing on the fateful day. It is neither unique nor “NO GO”. The decision to make a direct approach within tailwind limitations specific to type, IFR procedures for duty runway, attempt an approach, go around at DH to make another approach – all fall within the ambit of the operations manual and a “Captain’s decision”. They wear four stripes for a reason.
Seasonal weather pattern
The Southwest Monsoon was in full fury when IX-1344 left India for Dubai (not known when) and arrived Calicut with repatriated passengers. No other flight crew were killed or injured in the crash, which indicates there were no ‘deadheading’ crew onboard. Weather at Calicut was seasonal: arguably tough, but not out of envelope for a modern aircraft like the B737-800. Actual weather may differ; there could be local phenomena such as thunderstorm, cloudburst, windshear, etc. Crew take all this into account hundreds of miles from destination and plan / revise diversion accordingly.
METAR (weather report) at arrival indicated wind 260/12, visibility 2000m in rain; scattered clouds at 300 ft & 1200 ft, few cumulonimbus at 2500ft, tempo vis 1500m in rain. The southern state of Kerala was under the grip of SW Monsoon.
At the helm of IX-1344 was an experienced captain — Capt Deepak Vasant Sathe — a former IAF test pilot with many thousands of hours experience across the civil-military spectrum. ‘Missed approach’ executed on first attempt could mean the crew did not acquire the desired visual references at ‘decision height/altitude (DH/DA)’ to continue the landing approach. Returning for a second approach is also standard operating procedure, not some bizarre breakdown. Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), under which the flight was operated, caters for two missed approaches before diversion is invoked. So all the hype around “why did the pilot not divert” is speculatory and ill-informed.
Flying during a pandemic
One must spare a thought on what the pandemic and associated rules can do to a busload of weary passengers returning home on a repatriation flight. It is bad enough to be flying; who would want an unforeseen layover or waiting for hours at an alternate? Diversion in these times come with added complications and pain for all onboard. Could this have weighed on the mind of Capt Sathe as he formulated his arrival plan for Calicut and a likelihood of diversion? We don’t know that yet, but it cannot be overlooked.
Starting an investigation on the wrong foot
The pilots are dead and no longer around to defend themselves. This may be convenient for many in the company, the ministry and DGCA. But the DG’s testimony to media will inevitably bias the investigation that follows. Even in the military, there are several anecdotes where people in authority made premature assessments based on circumstantial evidence, “gut feel”, “in my time” anecdotes, or “confirmation bias”. Those who presided over those courts of inquiry often sniffed the air waves for “what does the boss want?”, rather than “what does available evidence indicate?”
Generalists running the show
In the case of IX-1344 crash and the statements that followed, one thing becomes evident: the Director General Mr. Arun Kumar either does not understand or simply doesn’t care for due diligence in air accident investigation. Use of unprofessional terms like “one side of the runway” or “another side of runway” without detailing the instrument runway(s), category of ILS available (only Category 1 for Calicut), the type of approach procedure involved versus prevailing conditions, etc. only displays an abject lack of aviation knowledge shielded behind the iron-clad PPE of authority. Tomorrow, the DG may simply sidestep to the agriculture ministry and another IAS official from department of fisheries may take the chair. Should such generalists run a specialised department like DGCA?
At the base of this monumental gaffe lies a “system” rotting from the head for many years now. The DGCA is responsible for ensuring aviation safety. Instead, that fence is eating the crop. Countries genuinely interested in advancing aviation will never conduct themselves in a public discourse this way. If the DGCA was a pilot, any flight instructor would have handed him a “failed” report card for basic “airmanship”. The regulator’s incompetence is only matched by arrogance and the unbridled power they wield.
Sadly, the only losers in this deadly game of bluff are fare-paying passengers & their families who are thrown under the bus each and every time. A system predicated on “fix the pilot if alive & bury if dead” will not allow civil aviation in India to grow safely or prevent such recurrences. With the demand for aviation in India, one expects much better, more scientific accident investigation & a “just culture”. The regulator can’t be lapdog to some & watchdog for others. The nation should ask if we have the right people running the “show”, which is what it’s actually become.
The Director General of Civil Aviation Mr. Arun Kumar should tender a public apology or be sacked for irresponsible commentary in the wake of IX-1344 crash.
But as a seasoned aviation watcher in India, I can tell you – neither of that will happen. Life will go on. Because it doesn’t matter around here. That’s the system we have at hand. I will be happy to be proven wrong.
An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint on Aug 10, 2020. You can access that here.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cover photo from @breakingavnews. Views expressed in this article are personal, except where quoted from sources. Feedback is welcome. Kindly keep the comments clean and respectful of victims and their families.